Leo Austria knew the importance of this game and didn’t deviate one little bit from the formula that has made San Miguel Beer the most dominant team in the PBA the last two seasons.
And from the looks of it, Austria seems bent on doing it for the rest of the Philippine Cup, at the very least.
Austria rode his best horses the entire game Sunday night as the defending champion Beermen pulled out a 96-88 victory over a Star side that gave San Miguel all it could handle at Smart Araneta Coliseum in Cubao.
The Beermen needed a 15-0 spurt to close out the Hotshots and get their 42nd Season campaign off on the right foot, as June Mar Fajardo scored 25 points that went with 16 rebounds and Alex Cabagnot added 22 points.
Arwind Santos fired 17 points and the trio was on the floor an average of no less than 37 minutes each as Austria didn’t even give highly touted rookie Arnold Van Opstal and Rashawn McCarthy the chance to play.
“This is the first game and we want to win,” Austria said when asked why Van Opstal and McCarthy were kept in the freezer despite good credentials. “Although they (rookies) could help us, we treated this game like the playoffs because this is a very short conference.
“We use only those we need,” he went on. “Pasensya na sa kanila (rookies).”
The Beermen, shooting to win this title for the third straight year, had leads of as many as 10 points only to trail by as many as nine halfway through the fourth period.
A 77-86 deficit woke the Beermen up, as Fajardo and Cabagnot did their damage on the Hotshots from inside and out during winning time and bailed San Miguel out.
Fajardo, shooting to win a fourth straight MVP, and Cabagnot scored seven points each in the fourth period, making Austria heap praises on his two veteran All-Stars.
“They are used to these kinds of games,” Austria said in Filipino.
“In our five semis and three titles [in the last two seasons, they (Cabagnot and Fajardo) have carried this team.”
Star, which underwent a massive facelift in the off-season by shipping out James Yap for Paul Lee, played with far better form than it did last year as Lee showed his worth by spearheading the Hotshots to a hot second half.
Mark Barroca led Star with 13 points and Lee scored 10 of his 12 in the third quarter where the Hotshots started building momentum and made the Beermen work very hard.
“They had a good run,” Austria said of the Hotshots, who tried to run all game long in an effort to negate San Miguel’s huge advantage in size. “I told them (Beermen) that we were playing their game and it was hurting us.”