Beermen return to Finals of conference they ruled with iron hand the last decade
San Miguel Beer avoided falling into the same sorry ending the last time out and left no doubt on this one, returning to a place it knows very well—the PBA Philippine Cup Finals—against a familiar foe.
The Beermen learned their lessons from an unbelievable Game 6 collapse and took down the Meralco Bolts with impunity, 100-89, in the decider of their best-of-seven semifinal series to return to the league’s ultimate stage for the first time since 2019.
With June Mar Fajardo and CJ Perez leading the way and a bevy of players performing to expectations, San Miguel leaned on a strong start before preventing Meralco from making a serious case at erasing a big deficit to claim a wire-to-wire win before a decent Wednesday crowd at Smart Araneta Coliseum.
That enabled San Miguel to set up a date with TNT in a seven-game championship showdown which begins on Sunday also at the Big Dome.
It will be San Miguel’s first Finals since winning the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup, incidentally at TNT’s expense.
TNT, which won last season’s edition over Barangay Ginebra, claimed the first Finals slot after beating Magnolia in the other semis duel last Sunday.
The Beermen could have closed it out in Game 6, but imploded in the final four minutes despite a 10-point lead and fell, 96-92.
“It was a lesson learned for everybody because we didn’t play with the killer’s instinct [in Game 6], which is usually the character of the team,” said San Miguel coach Leo Austria, who was elated to see the team start off well and sustain it till the end.
San Miguel made its first six shots, two of which were three-pointers from veteran Marcio Lassiter, while Meralco missed its first 11 as the Beermen took a 12-2 lead in the opening four minutes and never looked in trouble the rest of the way.
Vic Manuel, Mo Tautuaa and Jericho Cruz also stepped up to make it a 34-14 lead in the second, then shook off a short Meralco run that saw the margin reduced to nine at one point to go into halftime up, 45-31.
The third quarter witnessed Fajardo and Perez displaying their all-around skills worthy of their status as the top contenders for the Best Player of the Conference award, and San Miguel would stretch the margin to a high of 23 late in the third, 70-47.
Fajardo finished with 29 points that went with 14 rebounds and Perez was brilliant, posting 18 points, nine assists, five steals and two blocks.
Meralco never got a chance to orchestrate another great escape and show its usual brand of play, with Game 6 hero Aaron Black working doubly hard for his 13 points, leaving energy guy Cliff Hodge to play the lead scorer, finishing with 23 points.
“We know that we can beat them if we can stop their hustle points, transition plays, offensive rebounds and their relentless, swarming offense which brought them to the semis,” said Austria.
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