D-League champion NLEX has its Big Three - and they don't go by the names of James, Wade or Bosh. Neither are they named Garcia, Abueva and Sangalang.
After the Road Warriors completed a sweep of the Aspirants Cup with an emphatic 82-62 sweep of Big Chill, coach Boyet Fernandez was quick to pay tribute to three men who may not be as celebrated as NLEX's three college stars but paved the way for the team's hat-trick of titles.
With RR Garcia, Ian Sangalang and Calvin Abueva missing some games because of commitments with their college teams, Fernandez turned to Cliff Hodge, Emman Monfort and Kirk Long to sustain the Road Warriors' dynastic reign in the fledgling league.
Garcia was not allowed by the Far Eastern University Tamaraws to play for NLEX until the postseason while Abueva and Sangalang had to leave the team for a few elimination games to join the San Sebastian Stags' training camp in the United States.
“When I saw our line-up, I honestly felt that Cebuana Lhuillier, Big Chill, RnW Pacific Pipes and Blackwater were strong kaya sabi ko, I have to fill up the gaps,” said Fernandez.
No one stepped up for the Road Warriors more than Fil-American Hodge, a 6-5 forward out of Hawaii Pacific University who took to heart Fernandez's challenge to take charge in the absence of Abueva and Sangalang.
His effort rewarded him with the Best Player of the Conference trophy.
“When Calvin and Ian were with Baste, I talked to Cliff and I challenged him to step up offensively and defensively. The way Cliff played, he really improved a lot and I’m proud that he was the MVP this conference,” said Fernandez.
When Fernandez heard that the PBA had granted American Long a special exemption to play in the league, the Road Warriors coach knew he ought to have him.
True enough, the defensive specialist out of Ateneo made an immediate impact as NLEX moved up from No. 4 to lead the league in least points given up per game.
“When I heard that Kirk long was available, I really looked at him because he is a defensive player. From fourth last conference, we became the No. 1 defensive team in the league,” said Fernandez.
Monfort, on the other hand, took charge at point guard and led the Road Warriors in scoring with 13 points on a two-for-four clip from behind the arc in their Game Two victory. He also had seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals in the title-clinching victory.
The end result was a 13-game sweep of the tournament and a third successive title - perfect numbers that leave NLEX as the only team to win a title so far in the developmental league.
“This achievement is one for the books,” Fernandez said.