After a heart-breaking loss in the series opener earlier this week, the Meralco Bolts pulled the plug on the NLEX Road Warriors’ brief postseason run with a 97-86 win in their quarterfinal match-up.
Calvin Oftana’s buzzer-beater in their prior encounter allowed NLEX to pull off a stunning one-point win, 81-80, that forced the do-or-die match. With their backs against the wall, the second-seeded Bolts leaned on their ever-reliable cast of veterans to ensure that they would not squander their twice-to-beat advantage.
Meralco recovered from a late first quarter rally by the Road Warriors that saw them briefly steal the lead. However, the Bolts were unfazed and managed to retake control of the contest by the end of the opening period. They led from the second quarter onwards and maintained a double digit advantage for most of the second half, allowing them to comfortably cruise into the semifinals for the second consecutive season.
Meralco’s defense was the deciding factor in the game, as they managed to limit NLEX to just 39% from the field which paled in comparison to their 48% clip. The Road Warriors actually took more free throws (29 compared to 17), but it was not enough to overcome their poor shooting from the floor.
Chris Newsome bounced back from a quiet seven-point performance in the previous game to lead all scorers with 23 points on only 13 field goal attempts. He relentlessly attacked the Road Warriors’ slow-footed big men who were helpless when switched onto him.
The former Ateneo Blue Eagle also tallied nine rebounds, six assists, and two blocks to complete his best game of the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup so far. His maturation as a ball handler and playmaker in the pick-and-roll, together with his elite size and athleticism, has turned him into one of the toughest players in the league to cover.
Newsome has been a crucial aspect in Meralco’s recent success and if he can continue playing at this level in the semifinals versus the Magnolia Pambansang Manok Hotshots, they just might have a chance at their franchise’s fourth-ever PBA Finals appearance.
It was not a one-man effort for Meralco as Anjo Caram made the most of his surprise start. The diminutive guard energized the Bolts with his spunky play and recorded 16 points together with six assists and no turnovers.
He played excellent defense on NLEX’s star guard Kevin Alas throughout the match and scored five straight points late in the fourth quarter that extended their lead to a comfortable 15 points, 91-76, with a little over three minutes remaining.
Not to be outdone, Meralco’s veteran reserves recharged the team with their untiring persistence on both ends of the floor. The big man duo of 33-year-old Cliff Hodge and 42-year-old Reynel Hugnatan combined for 27 points off the bench, with the former almost going perfect from the field as he made eight of his nine shot attempts.
NLEX had five players score in double digits, led by starting forward Celedonio Trollano Jr.’s 19 points. Their prized rookie Oftana, the third pick in this year’s draft, continued his strong play over these past few weeks with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and two blocks. In a season that saw them lose their superstar guard Kiefer Ravena to the Japan B.League, the rise of Oftana has been a more than welcome development.
With the win, Meralco has secured a best-of-seven semifinal meeting with a deep Magnolia team whom they beat by a point, 95-94, in the eliminations a month ago. The battle between Newsome and Paul Lee will be an exciting showdown between two of the finest talents in the league today.
The Bolts’ team-oriented attack has brought them this far and though may not have as much top-tier talent or recognizable names as the Pambansang Manok Hotshots, this is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Their multi-titled head coach Norman Black is known for bringing out the best in his players and has pulled off quite a number of surprising championship runs through the years. This Meralco team has the potential to join that list of winners and this upcoming series with Magnolia is next on their road to glory.