Two weeks is a long time in the basketball world.
The Meralco Bolts’ last game in the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup–a 91-76 drubbing at the hands of the league-leading TNT Tropang Giga that snapped a three-game winning streak–was almost two weeks ago. Following the loss, several members of their team entered the league’s health and safety protocols which prompted the sudden hiatus.
In that same week, the Terrafirma Dyip were in the midst of an improbable three-game winning streak that made them the league’s darlings. It suddenly put them in the conversation for a playoff berth and Juami Tiongson looked like the best point guard in the league during that five-day stretch.
However, the fortunes of these two teams have now gone in opposite directions two weeks later.
The Bolts returned to action to face the Dyip without their star guard Chris Newsome and reserve Cliff Hodge. They then lost starting guard Aaron Black after he exited the game with an injury just two minutes into the match, but it did not matter as the rest of the team was ready to step up. They used a by-committee approach to make up for the absence of their sidelined teammates, looking refreshed instead of rusty following the unscheduled break.
It was a tightly-contested match until the fourth quarter when Meralco pulled away from the Dyip to take a 12-point win, 95-83, at the DHVSU Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga that energized their playoff push while simultaneously pulling the plug on Terrafirma’s once-bright quarterfinal hopes.
The tandem of the 2016 PBA Rookie of the Year Newsome and three-time PBA All-Star Mac Belo may be the most recognizable names on the roster, yet it is their depth that has provided much of the power behind their strong showing in this year’s Philippine Cup.
Five different Bolts have led the team in scoring over their eight games this conference and the ageless 18-year veteran Reynel Hugnatan, who is their third leading scorer at 10 points per game, is not even one of them.
Seven players–four of whom came off the bench–scored at least nine points for Meralco against the Dyip, led by Bong Quinto who joined the starting line-up and scored a season-high 17 points together with eight rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes. Quinto, who came into the match averaging just 5.1 points per game this conference, sparked the rest of the Bolts with his energy and hustle all throughout the game.
Anjo Caram, Allein Maliksi, Raymond Almazan, Alvin Pasaol, and Hugnatan also put up at least 10 points while Mac Belo recorded nine and brought his usual steady presence on defense that is invaluable for Meralco in ways not measured by the box score.
The win allowed Meralco to remain at second place in the standings with a 6-2 win-loss card, right behind the 9-1 Tropang Giga and just a half-game ahead of the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok who carry a 6-3 record.
Head coach Norman Black has continued to draw the best out of this roster, which is not as star-studded as their rivals on top of the standings, and they will be a tough opponent for any team come the postseason.
They are in prime position to duplicate–and even improve on–last year’s semi final showing and the additional year of experience has clearly benefited them. Despite their strong record, they remain dark horses, not favorites, for the championship behind the league’s banner franchises, yet this Meralco team is eager and in the right form to shock the world this Philippine Cup.