Austria looks back at Game 4 as start of miracle for Beermen

Joey Villar, Nelson Beltran - Philstar.com

MANILA, Philippines – All the San Miguel Beermen initially wanted was to avoid being swept. They did survive Game Four on a dramatic comeback from 11 points down in the last three minutes – a spark touching off San Miguel’s wondrous journey to a previously unchartered course in PBA’s 41-year history.

The Beermen pulled off a 110-104 win in overtime in Game Four before a capacity crowd at the Philsports Arena in Pasig on January 24, a decisive victory that extended the series to another game and thus opened the door for the return of main man June Mar Fajardo from a knee injury.

Game Four proved to be the one big break San Miguel waiting for – the game-changer, the turning point in the epic series that saw the Beermen in a wild victory celebration at the final buzzer in Game Seven Wednesday at the MOA Arena in Pasay City.

History was made, with the Beermen winning back-to-back PBA Philippine Cup crowns for the first time on their record comeback from 0-3 down in the title series.

“I kept on saying miracle is just around the corner, and it happened,” said coach Leo Austria, now 3-of-3 in finals with the Beermen.

“I was there (as a player for Shell) when our team, leading 1-3, fell in a stunning loss on a great comeback by Ginebra (in 1991). Then I coached a team in the PBL that survived a 0-2 deficit in a best-of-five title series. That’s why I believe things like these can happen,” Austria also said.

The superb bunch of Fajardo, Arwind Santos, Chris Ross, Marcio Lassiter, Chris Lutz, Alex Cabagnot, Ronald Tubid and Gabby Espinas surpassed all these with their great rise from 0-3 down versus the Alaska Milk Aces.

Again, it all started on their Game Four victory and the return of Fajardo, the Best Player of the Conference, in Game Five.

“No doubt, June Mar is a huge factor,” said Austria.

“We fought them in a close fight in each of the first three games. All those games could’ve gone either way. So we probably can say that we can beat them even without June Mar. But we could’ve not salvaged the series without him,” Austria also said.

Lassiter top scored with 26 points, Espinas came through with a double-double game with 21 markers and 14 rebounds, Santos had his mini double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds while Ross and Cabagnot struck in the clutch as the Beermen foiled the Aces’ sweep bid in Game Four.

Fajardo made his much-awaited comeback in Game Five, with the crowd instantly electrified just as the 6-foot-10 behemoth headed to the officials’ table towards the end of the first quarter.

The reigning back-to-back MVP played a solid 16:29 minutes and his teammates took the cue as San Miguel survived another overtime grind at 86-73.

And the complexion of the series had changed by the next game, the momentum shifted on the other side.

Lassiter led all scorers with 26 points, including 17 in the last quarter, while Fajardo piled up 16 markers, seven rebounds, two steals, one block and one assist as the Beermen repulsed the Aces, 100-89, to force the winner-take-all match.

With a four-day breather, Fajardo was already almost in his usual dominant form in Game Seven, collecting 21 points, 15 rebounds and one assist to lead the Beermen to the history-setting 96-89 triumph.

“You have to give it to June Mar. He’s still injured but he begged to be allowed to play, and he didn’t disappoint,” said Austria.

In salvaging the Philippine Cup crown, Fajardo and his teammates put themselves in a position to deliver a third three-peat feat for the franchise.

The SMB bunch led by Ramon Fernandez, Samboy Lim and Hector Calma accomplished a grand slam season in 1989 while the group of Danny Ildefonso, Danny Seigle and Olsen Racela strung up three straight championships from the 2001 Commissioner’s Cup.

A motivation for Fajardo and company was a disastrous ninth-place finish in the 2015 Commissioner’s Cup after a title run in the all-Filipino tourney.

“We’re embarrassed then,” said Agustin.

The back-to-back Phl Cup champs take only a 16-day break, starting their Commissioner’s Cup stint versus the Mahindra Enforcers on February 20 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

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