by Jonas Terrado
It may not be as difficult as its famous comeback three years earlier but the sweet feeling of surviving a hard-fought championship encounter remains the same for San Miguel Beer after its fifth consecutive conquest of the PBA Philippine Cup.
Staring at the prospect of seeing their reign end, the Beermen displayed grit and championship poise to erase a 17-point third quarter and escape past the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok, 72-71, before 12,000 fans at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Exhausted players laughed and cried while soaked with water and beer during their locker room celebration, knowing the difficulty of enduring Magnolia’s hard-nosed defending.
“Maliban sa Beeracle, ito yung pinakamahirap namin na championship (Other than the Beeracle, this was the most difficult championship we ever had),” said Arwind Santos.
Beeracle was the term coined when the Beermen overcame the odds and erased a 0-3 deficit to beat the Alaska Aces in the 2016 Philippine Cup, a comeback unlike any other.
It would be recalled that Game 7 of that series saw the Beermen gain a smooth passage toward completing their historic feat, thus giving coach Leo Austria a different perspective about his latest championship haul.
“This is the most difficult Game 7,” said Austria. “This championship is really special because a lot of people thought that the dynasty will be broken and sabi nila there’s no forever and that this dynasty will not last forever.
“But we’re so thankful we’re able to get this five-peat with a lot of pride from our players because they always say that this is the legacy of our team,” added Austria, now a seven-time champion coach all with the Beermen.
Chris Ross said SMB’s resiliency didn’t waver even after Magnolia took a 43-26 lead in the third quarter and the contest looked as if the Hotshots were heading toward becoming the new kings of the All-Filipino tournament.
“We all came through even though we had a terrible first half,” Ross said. “We didn’t lose hope, we didn’t lose faith; we just kept battling. We made enough plays in the end to pull this one through.”
Through the collective efforts of Ross, first-time PBA champion Terrence Romeo, Christian Standhardinger and Santos, the Beermen were able to stage their rally and eventually engage the Hotshots in a seesaw affair entering the final minutes.
Alex Cabagnot, maligned for going 1-of-12 despite Sunday’s Game 6 win that forced a decider, came through with the game’s biggest shot with 57 seconds that eventually became the final score.
“That shot didn’t literally win the ballgame,” said Cabagnot, who had 18 points on 8-of-19 shooting. “We made some defensive stops with our best defensive lineup out there. In the championship, defense win games and you our last two defensive possessions.”
Then PBA Press Corps-Honda Finals MVP June Mar Fajardo battled fatigue throughout the second half and hauled down a new PBA record 31 rebounds to complete SMB’s multiple stops in the homestretch.
San Miguel soon enjoyed the spoils, but not without feeling a sense of gratification.
“I have bad memories, so it’s hard for me to remember, but this was the first one that I actually cried after winning the game,” Ross said. “It was definitely one of the feel-good championships that we have.”