Bucking the trend
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - May 17, 2019 - 12:00am

San Miguel Beer threw the stats out the window, reversed the trends and leaned on its experience under pressure to beat Magnolia, 72-71, in Game 7 of the PBA Philippine Cup Finals at the Smart Araneta Coliseum last Wednesday night. The numbers indicated that the Hotshots could’ve and probably, should’ve won. But pulling the rug from under San Miguel wasn’t meant to be as Magnolia succumbed to the tension in the homestretch. 

Before Game 7, Magnolia made the statement that if the Hotshots hold San Miguel to less than 90 points, the probability is they win. But if San Miguel scores at least 100, the chances are the Beermen clinch. The pattern of the series has been alternating wins starting with Magnolia in Game 1 then San Miguel in Game 2 all the way to Game 6. So the trend pointed to Magnolia taking Game 7. 

San Miguel, however, isn’t a team that leaves its fate to stats. The Beermen make their own destiny. In Game 7, June Mar Fajardo was called for three three-second violations and San Miguel had more turnovers, 18-3 at the half. San Miguel was held to only 25 points after the first two quarters, indicating the Hotshots were in control of a low-scoring, defense-oriented encounter. Before Magnolia committed its first error, San Miguel already had 12. San Miguel finished with 25 turnovers against Magnolia’s nine. In the third period, Arwind Santos was tagged with a flagrant foul penalty one, meaning a three-minute sit-out and two free throws plus possession for Magnolia.

The Hotshots opened a 17-point lead in the third period, 43-26 but the Beermen wouldn’t quit. A 7-0 blast capped by a Santos basket pushed San Miguel in the driver’s seat, 62-61, with 7:15 to go. There were 11 lead changes in the fourth period as both teams figured in a battle of nerves. With 1:59 left, Ian Sangalang connected to give Magnolia back the lead, 71-70. The Hotshots had an opportunity to stretch the lead but lost possession when Mark Barroca passed to Sangalang who wasn’t in position to receive it and the ball sailed out of bounds. That led to Alex Cabagnot’s tough baseline leaner to put San Miguel on top, 72-71. Magnolia had the ball with 17 seconds left but Jio Jalalon failed to score from close range. Fajardo was fouled with 4.8 seconds remaining, missed both free throws but since Magnolia had no timeout left, all Paul Lee could do was to heave beyond the halfcourt line at the buzzer.

San Miguel’s barometer Christian Standhardinger wound up with four points and that was another trend that the Beermen bucked. In San Miguel’s three wins in the series, Standhardinger averaged 14 points but in three losses, his clip dropped to 5.7. The trend was if Standhardinger scores in double figures, the probability is San Miguel wins but if not, the Beermen lose. In Game 7, that trend was broken.

San Miguel scored only 72 points in a low-scoring Game 7. Magnolia, however, couldn’t capitalize the way it did in winning Games 1, 3 and 5. Barroca, the Game 5 hero, struggled with seven points and Jalalon could deliver only eight after scoring 17 in Game 6. 

Experience was clearly a factor in the last few minutes when the order was to play with poise. San Miguel wouldn’t crack and Magnolia couldn’t sustain its amazing defense that held San Miguel to only five points in the second period. It was San Miguel coach Leo Austria’s eighth Finals appearance and fifth straight Philippine Cup crown. For Magnolia coach Chito Victolero, it was his third Finals outing and second runner-up finish. In last season’s Philippine Cup, San Miguel beat Magnolia, 4-1, in the Finals. Victolero made the rematch a closer tiff but Austria remained on the throne. The difference in composure was evident down the stretch with the trophy on the line.

Fajardo was named the Finals MVP and deserved it for sure. He had 31 rebounds in Game 7 as San Miguel controlled the boards, 69-40, negating the possessions it threw away on turnovers. Austria did a remarkable balancing act in alternating Santos and Standhardinger at the four spot and Cabagnot and Terrence Romeo at the two spot. Santos delivered 17 points and 11 rebounds while Cabagnot hit 18 points in the clincher. Romeo and Standhardinger didn’t do much damage offensively in Game 7 but their presence was felt in other departments. Austria has discovered the magic formula of playing Fajardo and Standhardinger together. And he has also found the rhythm to rotate Romeo, Cabagnot and Chris Ross. 

Victolero almost pulled it off. For Magnolia to take San Miguel to a Game 7 was a feat in itself. The Hotshots deserve high fives for their gutsy performance and of course, congratulations to San Miguel for displaying a fighting spirit that wouldn’t peter out, that showed the heart of a champion.

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