Within just a minute, Marcio Lassiter and CJ Perez fouled out for the San Miguel Beermen at the most inopportune time.
Only three minutes remained in Game 3 of the 2022 PBA Philippine Cup Finals versus the TNT Tropang Giga and it looked like it was going to be an uphill climb for the Beermen without their two best perimeter scorers.
However, San Miguel head coach Leo Austria was unfazed by the moment.
The multi-titled mentor pulled a surprise out of his hat as he called on Robbie Herndon, who had yet to play in these Finals, to step in for Perez. His bold gamble wound up paying off handsomely as the 29-year-old guard did not disappoint.
Herndon confidently hit his first three-point attempt a minute later to give the Beermen a 94-90 edge with 2:12 remaining in the contest. Though he was called for a delay-of-game technical foul before TNT’s final offensive play which awarded RR Pogoy the free throw that forced overtime, he quickly made amends. The back-up wing scored five straight points to kick off the extra period that helped blow the game wide open.
San Miguel held on for their second straight victory, 108-100, to take control of the best-of-seven series with a 2-1 lead.
Herndon wound up with eight points and four rebounds in eight crucial minutes of action.
While his play brought a shock factor to the match’s last few minutes, the Beermen would not have been in a position to take the game without six-time PBA Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo. The 6’10 center scored 27 points on 10-of-18 field goal shooting and also grabbed an astounding 27 rebounds–seven of which came on the offensive end. He also had two assists, a steal, and three blocks in 47 minutes of action.
Fajardo was dominant throughout the match, despite being constantly double teamed, and already had a double double with still seven minutes remaining in the first half. Along with Vic Manuel, he helped set the tone early on for San Miguel as the two big men combined for 17 first quarter points against the overmatched interior defense of the Tropang Giga.
Manuel briefly left the contest after hurting his ankle in the second period, but returned for the second half and finished with 12 points and two blocks off the bench. His fellow reserves Jericho Cruz and Chris Ross also had strong showings as they both took over late in the game.
Cruz put up 13 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime while he also had three assists and two steals. The former TNT guard took charge in the absence of Perez and played a crucial role in keeping San Miguel’s offense from stagnating late in the game.
Meanwhile, the two-time PBA Finals Most Valuable Player Ross delivered a vintage performance with eight points, two rebounds, five assists, two steals, and a block. Ross played excellent defense on the Tropang Giga’s leading scorer Mikey Williams and had a crucial steal late in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter that helped keep the Beermen in control. He also hit two three-pointers during the evening after making a grand total of three during the entire conference.
The win was a complete team effort for San Miguel that puts them in a prime position to win their first Philippine Cup title since 2019. The overflowing level of talent that they have on their roster often goes to waste, yet in rare occasions like this game where several different players contribute to their cause, they are difficult to match up with. If they can continue to get this kind of production across the board for the next few games, then it is hard to imagine them losing this series.
The Beermen are just two wins away from the title, though they will have to be ready for the inevitable counterpunch from TNT’s prolific backcourt come Game 4.