MANILA, Philippines -- Dennis Espino provided himself a special moment to look back to in his career: An all-Filipino title for the team he has stayed loyal to for 13 years.
Labeled as one of the league?s biggest underachievers in the past, Espino hit all the crucial shots for the Realtors down the stretch in a 100-88 Game 7 victory over Purefoods Sunday night that put an end to a classic Smart PBA Philippine Cup championship series.
The 6-foot-6 Sta. Lucia skipper hit four crucial baskets in a telling 13-2 run inside the final 5:48 as the Realtors turned a 79-80 deficit into a 92-82 lead with 1:49 left to close out the bruising series before a virtual sea of humanity at the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City.
?I told my teammates (before the game) that there is no tomorrow for us after this,? Espino, who has been given credit by management and coaching staff for holding the team together on and off the court, said in Filipino.
?I asked them to give it their all tonight.?
Espino finished with 29 points and was adjudged Finals Most Valuable Player for the first time in his career, leading the Realtors to only their second championship in 15 years.
This one, though, was undoubtedly the sweeter one considering the circumstances surrounding these playoffs.
Joseph Yeo kicked off the Realtors? final run, zigzagging past a phalanx of defenders to nail a left-handed lay-up for an 81-80 lead before Espino scored three of the next four unanswered Sta. Lucia baskets that signaled the start of the end for the Tender Juicy Giants.
The 34-year-old Espino?s heroics started in the second half, when he hit 12 in the third before topping it with 10 in the payoff period. He also had five rebounds and a block in 31 minutes.
Kelly Williams scored 17 points in a splendid support job, while rookie point guard Ryan Reyes contributed 12 and Nelbert Omolon and Marlou Aquino added 11 each.
The championship was also the first for coach Boyet Fernandez -- either as a player or a coach -- in 12 years in the league. And he gave it to the team where he started and ended his playing career dating back to the amateurs.
Peter June Simon led Purefoods with 27 points, and James Yap had 21 but was unable to carry the Giants on his shoulders when he needed to in the fourth period.
The Realtors played with so much cohesion, committing just four turnovers in the rubber match to equal the lowest-ever mark in a Finals game in league history.
?Credit goes to my players for working so hard for this championship,? Fernandez said. ?I also give credit to Purefoods, they also did a good job.?
The crowd of 18,167 paying fans was the league?s biggest since the 18,287 which saw Game 6 of the Philippine Cup Finals between eventual champion Barangay Ginebra versus Talk ?N Text in 2005.
Ever since the new seating at the Big Dome was implemented late in the last decade, the new attendance record for the league stands at 18,777. It was set during the regular semifinal doubleheader of this same tournament last season.
The veritable who?s who were in attendance, including United States Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney, who also frequented several UAAP games last year including the classic Ateneo-La Salle duels.
Meanwhile, the hunt for reinforcements for the Fiesta Cup is on, and it is curious to note that Alaska still doesn?t have one to banner its title defense.
?We?ve hired and lost about three guys already,? coach Tim Cone told the Philippine Daily Inquirer (parent company of INQUIRER.net) over the phone.
?It?s either they are injured or they want more money,? Cone explained as two of those prospects wanted something like $50,000 a month in base pay after their original choice, Jeff Graves, became unavailable because of injury.
The maximum salary for imports is $20,000 a month and this is exclusive of P5,000 a week for food expenses, P80,000 a month for accommodation and a car and driver.
STA. LUCIA 100 -- Espino 29, Williams 17, Reyes 12, Omolon 11, Aquino 11, Yeo 9, Gonzales 7, Miranda 4, Coronel 0, Daa 0.
PUREFOODS 88 -- Simon 27, J. Yap 21, Raymundo 11, R. Yap 9, Pingris 7, Salvador 5, Adducul 4, Lanete 2, Yee 2, Evangelista 0, Castillo 0.
Quarters: 18-21, 44-45, 71-70, 100-88.