Chito Victolero unravels H-Man
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - December 7, 2018 - 12:00am

In what is turning out to be a Finals of surprises, Magnolia coach Chito Victolero unveiled an unexpected X-factor in Game 1 of the PBA Governors Cup best-of-seven title series against Alaska at the MOA Arena last Wednesday. The betting was Victolero would unleash Ian Sangalang as his X-factor against the Aces’ Vic Manuel but the unlikely man of the hour was Robbie Herndon.

Before the Finals, Herndon had started only twice in 14 outings, averaging 2.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 9.8 minutes with a high of eight points which he scored thrice. But in Game 1, Victolero tapped the rookie for a starting assignment. Herndon, a Fil-Am with a lumberjack physique, responded by hitting a conference-high nine points in 9:27 minutes. He went 3-of-3 from the floor including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc. Herndon’s impact was a huge lift for the Hotshots as he collected two rebounds, a steal and two triples in Magnolia’s 15-0 surge to open the contest with a bang. Then, to cap his performance, he shot a jumper to extend Magnolia’s lead to 16 at 97-81, with 50 seconds left. Herndon wasn’t only the X-factor, he was the X-Man or the H-Man, the superhero in Victolero’s cast.

Herndon, 25, was the “sleeper” in last year’s draft, picked sixth overall after Christian Standhardinger, Kiefer Ravena, Toto Jose, Jason Perkins and Jeron Teng. The 6-3 forward’s father Robert, Jr., a police officer, is 3/4 Filipino. Herndon’s grandfather Robert Mesa Herndon is half-Filipino and great grandmother Zenaida Lagrosola a full Filipina. It was in 2014 when San Francisco lawyer Jason Aniel, whose mother Boots used to manage Filipino boxers and is a retired real estate agent, brought Herndon to play pick-up basketball with Sen. Manny Pacquiao in the US. After playing with Herndon, Pacquiao told him he could play in the PBA and that started the dream. Herndon went on to play two conferences in the PBA D-League then joined the PBA draft.

In Game 1, Herndon didn’t just portray the firestarter’s role. He also took his turn defending Alaska’s Mike Harris. Victolero threw an army of defenders against Harris, starting with the long-limbed Rafi Reavis who at 41, can still play serious hoops. Romeo Travis also got Victolero’s nod to eyeball Harris but had a lot of help, preserving him for the other things he does on the floor.

The Sangalang-Manuel duel for bragging rights as the X-factor of the Finals didn’t come off as speculated. Sangalang was in foul trouble most of the way and wound up sitting on the bench with six personals after delivering 10 points in 17:29 minutes, down from his average of 24. Manuel, bucking the flu and a right leg issue, wasn’t his usual self and netted only six points in 16:23 minutes. Manuel checked in averaging 14.3 points and 23.1 minutes.

Herndon wasn’t Victolero’s only firecracker. Mark Barroca was a man on a mission from start to finish. He was particularly thornful for Alaska in the final period, erupting for 10 of his 16 points. When the Aces trimmed the deficit to eight at 84-76, Barroca hit a layup to stretch the lead to 10, time down to 4:01. Then, he stole the ball and hit a three to make it 89-76. Barroca wasn’t done. He had another steal then dished off to Paul Lee for a layup, 91-76. To ice it, Barroca fired a two-pointer, 93-76. Barroca was the key figure in that scorching 9-0 binge that settled the issue.

Because Harris didn’t get the support from his locals that Travis did, the import matchup was far from even. Harris and Travis were supposed to neutralize each other but it didn’t work out that way in the series opener. Harris had 20 points, 15 rebounds, 2 assists and 5 turnovers while Travis collected 29 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and not a single turnover. Magnolia’s backcourt also outperformed the Alaska guards as Barroca shot 16, Lee 14, Jio Jalalon 7, Justin Melton 7 and P. J. Simon 4. For the Aces, Chris Banchero tallied 12, Jeron Teng 10, Simon Enciso 9, Jvee Casio 7 and Ping Exciminiano 0.

The Hotshots took 14 more field goal attempts because of more possessions generated by more rebounds, 50-43 and four less turnovers. Control of the boards was critical for either team to set the pace and Jalalon did a heckuva job grabbing 12 rebounds, just one less than Travis’ haul. Magnolia shot at a higher clip from the floor, 47.1 percent to 40.8, so that even as Alaska went 19-of-32 from the line compared to the Hotshots’ 12-of-15, it didn’t matter. In terms of rotation, Magnolia went deeper with five players logging at least 25 minutes, including Travis at 39:55 and Alaska only three with Harris clocking 41:26.

In Game 2 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum tonight, Alaska coach Alex Compton can’t afford another slow start. If Manuel isn’t 100 percent, the bigs must step up to fill in the gap. Sonny Thoss and Noy Baclao hit a combined three points in Game 1. Obviously, they’ve got to contribute a lot more and demand some defensive attention to ease the pressure off Harris. Banchero and Enciso were 2-of-11 from beyond the arc in Game 1 – that’s 18 percent shooting, way below the 35 percent they hit before the Finals.

Magnolia took Game 1, 100-84, and was never headed. Now, it’s Alaska’s turn to make things right. The Aces thrive in adverse situations and Compton is a master of adjustments. Game 2 should be a dandy.

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