Same mighty Beermen
Their PBA Commissioner’s Cup campaign wasn’t perfect—then again, nothing ever is. But the San Miguel Beermen opened the conference in a far from ideal manner and questions began to rise as to whether they could make a run to the title.
Making the prospects even worse, on the opposite end of the Finals showdown was TNT, which steamrolled the opposition and had pundits anointing the KaTropa champions long before the Finals series tipped off.
“We struggled in the eliminations,” said veteran guard and defensive whiz Chris Ross. “We were the 7th seed. We had to overcome twice-to-win and then we had to play a gritty Rain or Shine team that pushed us every game. Then you play a team like TNT?”
But after what coach Leo Austria regarded as a “roller-coaster journey,” the Beermen trekked back to the top. The road there was laborious, yes, but after grappling with problems in cohesion and complacency, San Miguel cemented another title run with a six-game conquest of TNT for its second straight crown this season.
“I know a lot of people doubted us and didn’t think we can win this series,” Ross added. “But our experience and our talent were able to somehow help us win this championship.”
Now, another one beckons.
“It’s there now. We won the second conference … and [the team] is really looking for the Grand Slam,” Austria said.
Only the Governors’ Cup remains for the Beermen to claim. But as Austria said, “we’ll always be the target of other teams.”
And that made the Commissioner’s Cup conquest crucial. It sent a chilling message to the rest of the league. Even at their worse, the Beermen can muster their inner might and muscle their way to a crown.
San Miguel Beer banked on its wealth of weapons and put the hurt on TNT before a crowd of 12,447, capping its six-game run to the title with a masterful 102-90 wire-to-wire victory Friday night at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
San Miguel chiseled the name it etched in PBA lore even deeper into granite, hiking its trophy count to 27 titles.
But the most important one is the one the Beermen still need to win.
San Miguel has completed a Grand Slam before, in 1989, behind a star-studded squad led by the legendary Mon Fernandez and such luminous greats as Samboy Lim, Ricardo Brown, Ato Agustin and Hector Calma.
This generation of Beermen has as much talent and depth and came close to a Triple Crown in 2017, only to be waylaid by Barangay Ginebra in the quarterfinals of the Governors’ Cup.
This season’s Grand Slam bid also seemed in peril after a 2-5 (win-loss) start. It took the arrival of Chris McCullough to reboot the team’s campaign in the Commissioner’s Cup—and rejuvenate the Beermen’s confidence.
“We’re going to win some games. We’re going to win the championship,” McCullough, an NBA first-round pick, told the Inquirer in his first interview in the Philippines.
But the way he was outplayed by an even better NBA-quality import, Terrence Jones, through four games of the title series, pushed that vow to the background.
The Beermen needed two overtimes in Game 2 to avoid a 0-2—and potentially 0-3—hole. And even then, they had to watch agonizingly as TNT missed four straight free throws that could have shredded their title hopes.
In Game 5, Jones uncharacteristically bungled two possessions largely due to the defense of Christian Standhardinger. Austria practically rolled the dice on his career in that game, benching reigning five-time MVP June Mar Fajardo in a key stretch in the fourth period to allow Standhardinger to introduce misery to Jones.
TNT was supposed to be a beast in Game 6. Active consultant Mark Dickel guaranteed a Game 7. The KaTropa rallied around Jones, who was the victim of a racial taunt by San Miguel veteran Arwind Santos. Everyone expected Jones to go medieval on the Beermen.
But there was just too much San Miguel. McCullough, Fajardo and Alex Cabagnot hit their shots. Ross knocked down a triple for a 63-44 spread. And when the energy of the starting unit ebbed, Standhardinger and Terrence Romeo kept the wave of attack going off the bench.
Romeo eventually was named Finals MVP.
Defense also a key
San Miguel also clamped down hard on defense and the Beermen caught a key break that helped out in that department: the KaTropa, a wrecking ball on offense with their three-point marksmanship, couldn’t get anything going from beyond the arc. Contested, open, whatever, TNT kept misfiring, drilling just seven of 37 triple attempts in Game 6.
Jayson Castro and Jones kept on swinging. But as the KaTropa skipper singlehandedly fired up his team late in the third period, the lessons of that wobbly start worked its wonders for the Beermen.
“Losing was something we had to learn. It made us a tough team to beat,” Austria said. It also made San Miguel resilient, allowing the Beermen to survive the absence of Marcio Lassiter, who was decommissioned in the quarterfinals due to a knee injury.
And as the clock counted down to the championship celebration, the message was clear. These are the same mighty Beermen that dominated the Philippine Cup. And they will be the same mighty Beermen that very team will try to stop once the Governors’ Cup rolls around.
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