The Meralco Bolts found themselves clinging to a six-point lead, 85-79, midway through the fourth quarter of Game 2 of their PBA Philippine Cup semifinal match-up against the mighty San Miguel Beermen.
The Bolts stormed out of the gates and led by as much as 17 points early in the second quarter, but the talented Beermen inevitably chipped away at their lead. San Miguel looked poised to take control late in the match with six-time PBA Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo leading the charge.
However, in a conspicuous turn of events, back-up center Raymar Jose became the unlikely hero for Meralco.
A couple of possessions after Jose hit his lone three-pointer of the game, he caught the ball near the top of the key and faked another long jumper that sent Mo Tautuaa flying past him. The 29-year-old center was suddenly presented with a clear path to the basket which he promptly attacked, albeit at a glacial pace.
Jose took one dribble before gathering for a left-handed lay-up. He managed to finish despite a physical foul from Fajardo who had come over to help. He then made the bonus free throw and gave the Bolts a much more comfortable 88-79 edge with five and a half minutes left in the match.
That proved to be enough of a cushion for them to hold on and take a 99-88 win that tied their best-of-seven series at one win apiece.
The surprising three-point play by Jose capped the reserve big man’s 10-point fourth quarter and he wound up finishing with 13 points in 19 minutes of action before eventually fouling out. The FEU alumnus’ performance was quite inspiring, though it was hardly the only one for Meralco on the evening.
Cliff Hodge led the team with 17 points, 14 rebounds, one steal, and one block in 35 minutes while Aaron Black and Allein Maliksi added 15 points apiece. Black picked up where Jose left off and put the finishing touches on their win as he hit a couple of timely baskets that kept the Beermen at arm’s length.
Chris Newsome was the fifth Bolt that scored in double figures as he had his usual strong all-around line, putting up 14 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. Chris Banchero and Bong Quinto added nine points apiece off the bench–with all of the latter’s points coming in their furious first quarter run. Raymond Almazan was solid as well, scoring seven points and grabbing 11 rebounds in only 17 minutes.
The win was a sign of resilience from Meralco coming off their 24-point blowout loss in Game 1 of this semifinal a few days ago. Although they allowed Fajardo to score 22 points after limiting him to just half of that in the previous outing, they made him work for every basket. Head coach Norman Black constantly sent a swarm of defenders at the 6’10 center whenever he touched the ball which tired him out by the endgame.
The Bolts also managed to limit CJ Perez to 14 points on an atrocious five-of-17 shooting from the field. Marcio Lassiter was also kept in check as the 35-year-old guard was only marginally better with 16 points on six-of-17 attempts.
Despite the win, Meralco remains the underdog in this series versus the top-seeded San Miguel. The most recent PBA Governor’s Cup runner-up will have to play with this kind of intensity in every game moving forward if they are to make a return trip to the Finals. They have proven their grit with this impressive win and will need the buffer provided by another strong start come Game 3.
The Bolts may not have the best players in this semifinal, but that will not matter if they can continue playing like the better team.