After blowouts to close shaves, the PBA Philippine Cup semifinal series featuring two vaunted ball clubs will boil down to a battle of attrition.
Tournament top seed TNT takes on all-Filipino powerhouse San Miguel Beer in a Game 7 that will finally end a series that has seen everything but a winner.
And Leo Austria, the coach who steered the Beermen to five straight crowns in the league’s premier tournament—a dynastic reign interrupted only last year when six-time Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo was absent due to a broken leg—knows exactly what to expect.
“If you noticed, since the start of the conference up to this series, it’s we beat them, they beat us, we beat them and they beat us,” he said. “Now, it’s just going to be a matter of who wants to win the rubber match.
“I’m expecting it will be a very tight game from start to finish because everything is at stake.”
The two teams clash at 4:35 p.m. at Don Honorio Ventura State University in Bacolor town, Pampanga, a playdate arranged by San Miguel’s 103-90 victory in Game 6 last Friday.
The winner of the match advances to the championship round against Magnolia, which booked the first Finals slot after dismissing Meralco, 93-85, late Friday on a strong performance from Ian Sangalang (19 points, 14 rebounds and six assists).
It’s been a roller-coaster matchup between the two flagships of rival conglomerates in the league. As Austria pointed out, they’ve alternated wins and losses since the Beermen’s 83-67 rout of the Tropang Giga in the elimination round.
And in the semifinals, they’ve engaged in an even more dynamic back-and-forth. They’ve swapped close shaves; the first two games were decided by an average of 1.5 points. And they’ve traded routs; the last four matches were settled by an average of 19. In Game 5, TNT built a 28-point lead. In Game 6, San Miguel led by as many as 26.
In Game 7, all that is thrown out the window and the Beermen know that to advance, they will have to break pattern and beat the Tropang Giga for a second straight match.
“We have to have a good start,” Austria said. “And we should sustain this [Game 6 victory]. Of course, a lot of energy is what we need, because we all know that TNT is really trying to speed up the game with their fresh legs. So in our case, we’ll have to be smart.”
TNT coach Chot Reyes, meanwhile, is simply thankful.
“Our approach is one of gratitude,” he told the Inquirer on the eve of the contest. “Obviously, we’re the underdogs. We know how strong the opponent is and how tough the game will be, but we are blessed to be in this position.”
And to stamp out whatever pressure comes with playing in a Game 7, which is shaping up to be must-see TV, Reyes embraced a philosophical take on the game.
“Personally, I [was] just going through my regular routine: I had my early morning walk, [breakfast] and then practice,” he said. “As big as this game is, there’s still this thing called life we have to live.”
Meanwhile, Magnolia will be waiting in the wings, preparing for whoever emerges the winner of the titanic showdown.“We’re not picking any team to win,” a candid Chito Victolero said shortly after disposing of Meralco in Game 6. “They’re both strong, extremely talented, and deep … you can’t actually choose.”
“What’s important is that we’re able to ready for who ever emerges from that pairing,” he added.
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