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A jewel shy of a Grand Slam

It’s painful to come so close to capturing a Grand Slam only to fall short by a jewel. That’s exactly what happened to San Miguel Beer in the PBA this season. In league history, several teams suffered the same fate so San Miguel isn’t alone in its misery.

In the PBA’s inaugural season in 1975, Toyota won the first and second conference crowns then lost to Crispa in the third. In 1977, it was Crispa’s turn to falter after two conference championships, bowing to Toyota in the third tournament. Great Taste had the same run of two straight titles then was beaten by amateur guest Northern Cement in the reinforced conference in 1985. Tanduay won two in a row then lost to Ginebra in the open conference in 1986. Sunkist took the All-Filipino and Commissioner’s Cup but fell to third place in the Governors Cup in 1995. Alaska won the first two conference crowns in 1998 then lost in the Centennial and Governors Cups. 

Barangay Ginebra clinched the first and second conference titles in 2004-05 then didn’t even make it to the semifinals of the third. TNT also missed out after taking the All-Filipino and Commissioner’s Cups in 2010-11, bowing to Petron in the Governors Cup finals. So San Miguel was the ninth franchise to win two conference titles in succession only to blow a Grand Slam by losing the third.

For a while, it looked like San Miguel was destined to bag the Governors Cup title this season, racing to a 2-0 record with JuneMar Fajardo averaging 22.5 points as the Beermen dumped Blackwater, 118-93 and beat TNT, 97-91. Then, Fajardo came down with a strained right calf injury and skipped the game against Star which San Miguel lost, 104-98. Fajardo then joined Gilas in the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon where he sat out the first three outings and played sparingly in the last three.

Back in the PBA, Fajardo returned with a whimper, scoring four points in San Miguel’s 115-112 win over GlobalPort. It was clear he wasn’t 100 percent. Meanwhile, San Miguel coach Leo Austria desperately tried to find an import who could fit in the team’s system with or without a healthy Fajardo. First to be tapped was Wendell McKines who had previously played for Alaska in 2013 and Rain Or Shine in 2015. With McKines in harness, San Miguel went 3-2 which wasn’t good enough. In came Terik Bridgeman who played three years of Division III college basketball at William Paterson and one year of Division II action with Caldwell. Before moving to the PBA, Bridgeman’s only overseas exposure was in Georgia where he averaged a soft 11.9 points. 

Given Bridgeman’s credentials, it was no surprise he couldn’t keep in step with the PBA’s hardened imports. He averaged three points and five rebounds in two games before receiving the pink slip. Finally, San Miguel brought in Terrence Watson who played a year at the University of Mississippi and another year at Ball State. Like Bridgeman, his creds weren’t impressive as he’d played only in Iceland, Israel and Finland. McKines’ experience in France, Israel, Argentina, Dominican Republic and China was more far-reaching. This past season, Watson averaged 16 points and 10.7 rebounds in Iceland – stats that didn’t scream out for attention.

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Watson led San Miguel to three consecutive wins then the Beermen lost to Meralco, 104-101, to end the eliminations. San Miguel finished with a 7-4 record to tie Star, NLEX and Rain Or Shine for fourth place. Under tournament rules, a tie for fourth is settled by the quotient system. Because San Miguel lost to Star by six and NLEX by three, its differential was -2 with only a seven-point win over Rain Or Shine to show. Star was +10, NLEX +3 and Rain Or Shine -11. That meant San Miguel dropped to No. 6 in the ladder with a twice-to-win disadvantage in the quarterfinals against Ginebra.

San Miguel had the chance to recall McKines because he was the team’s original import but he had already left to play in Korea. The decision was to stick with Watson although there was talk that San Miguel would bring in another import in case the Beermen forced a do-or-die showdown with Ginebra.  Arizona Reid was mentioned as an option. But as it turned out, Ginebra didn’t give San Miguel a second chance as it eliminated the Beermen, 104-84, last Wednesday.

The drag of a long season was evident in the way San Miguel played its last game. A short rotation did little to maintain a high energy level for the likes of Alex Cabagnot, Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter, Arwind Santos and of course Fajardo. In the fateful defeat to Ginebra, Cabagnot could only score eight points and Ross, five. 

Newly recruited reserves Matt Ganuelas-Rosser and Von Pessumal hardly contributed to the effort. Ronald Tubid, Yancy de Ocampo, Keith Agovida, Brian Heruela, Jay-R Reyes, Rashawn McCarthy and David Semerad got minimal playing time. Gabby Espinas didn’t score more than three points in nine of 12 games. Clearly, a nucleus of five to six players isn’t enough to carry a team to a Grand Slam because somewhere down the road, the engine will sputter due to wear and tear. San Miguel could’ve used a more explosive import than Watson for the final push but like eight other teams that fell a crown shy of a Grand Slam, it wasn’t meant to be.

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