Moment of truth

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star

The day has come to decide the winner of the PBA Philippine Cup once and for all. Nobody would’ve imagined the best-of-7 Finals to go the distance after Alaska sprinted to a 3-0 lead. Then, slowly but surely, San Miguel Beer crept back into contention, emerging from a 0-3 hole to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in a miraculous Lazarus comeback.

Just when it looked like the San Miguel boat was sinking, coach Leo Austria found a way to avoid a Titanic collapse. He somehow kept the ship afloat, turning the tide in a do-or-die Game 4 with back-to-back reigning MVP JuneMar Fajardo watching from the sidelines.

Fajardo’s absence in the first four games of the Finals turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Austria who was forced to deepen his rotation by force of circumstance. You couldn’t blame Austria for playing a short rotation with Fajardo in harness. There just isn’t a player as dominant as Fajardo so why shorten his minutes? But after Fajardo went down with a partially dislocated left knee in the Game 6 clincher of the Rain Or Shine semifinal series, Austria had to re-examine the worth of his troops.

Yancy de Ocampo, 35, was tapped to start in Fajardo’s place. Before the Finals, he played in 13 of 17 games, averaging three points an outing. Since Game 1, De Ocampo has raised his scoring clip to 10 points. When Fajardo was reactivated in Game 5, Austria found himself in a rare state of luxury. He had the benefit of a revitalized De Ocampo and a recharged Fajardo.

With Fajardo gone, Austria reoriented the Beermen to trust each other more. Austria’s challenge was to convince the Beermen that they could win without their No. 1 offensive option. It wasn’t easy to make the Beermen believe they could beat Alaska without Fajardo. In Game 1, San Miguel looked ready to win until the Beermen ran out of steam down the stretch as the Aces took the fourth period, 34-16, and won, 100-91, despite leading only 13:22 minutes. In Game 2, San Miguel was in the driver’s seat for only 1:30 but came close to upending Alaska, faltering in the end, 83-80. In Game 3, another fourth period collapse brought down San Miguel as Alaska capitalized on a 27-17 spurt in the last 12 minutes to win, 82-75.  San Miguel came close to winning all those three games but couldn’t get the job done.

Then came Game 4. Austria desperately told the Beermen to keep the faith, that it takes four wins to end a series, not three. For the first time in the Finals, San Miguel outscored Alaska in the fourth quarter, 29-21 and won the battle of the boards, 68-67. The Beermen took it in extension, 110-104.

Game 5 saw Fajardo’s return. Austria didn’t start Fajardo and played him only 16:28 minutes, still maintaining the fast pace of his rotation. Fajardo did his part, contributing 13 points, and San Miguel won, 86-73, in overtime. Once more, the Beermen outscored the Aces in the fourth period, 15-12, and in extension, 19-6. Four San Miguel players scored in twin digits compared to three for Alaska – a surprising reversal considering a balanced offense has been an Alaska trademark with coach Alex Compton.

Fajardo played more minutes in Game 6 than Game 5, logging 22:10 and came off the bench to compile 16 points and seven boards. He broke loose for eight points in the fourth period and the Aces crumbled under his spell. With Fajardo on the attack, Marcio Lassiter got free for outside shots and hit 17 of his 26 in the last 12 minutes as San Miguel won, 100-89, to force a Game 7. Five San Miguel players hit in double figures and only four did it for Alaska, an indication that Austria had stolen a page from Compton’s playbook.

Tonight, history will be made as no team has ever won a title coming from a 3-0 lead or a 0-3 deficit in the PBA. Game 7 will be one for the books. Momentum is on San Miguel’s side but Alaska is clearly the hungrier team, having been frustrated in two Finals of three conferences by the Beermen last season.

It won’t be just a battle between two franchises steeped in championship tradition. For the record, San Miguel has won 21 titles and Alaska, 14. It will also be a battle between two coaching geniuses who know each other like the bounce of the ball. Austria, 57, and Compton, 41, go back a long way. They were partners with the Welcoat franchise for three conferences in 2007-08. Austria was Welcoat’s head coach and Compton, one of his assistants. Compton even played for Austria in the two-import 2007 Fiesta Conference.

So who knows the other more? Compton was an Austria understudy and learned from the Ron Jacobs disciple during their three conferences together. Austria, on the other hand, saw Compton develop both as a coach and player. Their duel in the Finals has been marked by attacks and counterattacks, adjustments and realignments. Game 7 will be no different. They’ll tweak, reposition, cross-match and create opportunities to exploit mismatches.

Compton and Austria were both born under the same zodiac sign of Pisces, recognized for their “optimistic ambition and determination.” Their birthdays are only two days apart – Compton was born on March 16, 1974 and Austria on March 14, 1958. No wonder their approach to the Finals is similar. They’re both driven and highly-motivated. Their rivalry makes for a classic climax tonight.

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