IT was just a year ago when a No. 8 team upended a No. 1 seed in the playoffs and Air21 hopes to match the feat against Talk N Text when the tailender clashes with the league leader on Thursday in the PBA Philippine Cup quarterfinals at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Tropang Texters lost only twice in the eliminations en route to nailing the No. 1 seed with a 12-2 win-loss record. The Express, meantime, struggled towards the latter stages of the elimination round as they stumbled to an anemic 5-9 record.
Texters hold a twice-to-beat edge and look to make quick work of the Express in their 5:15 match.
Air21 only gained safe passage to the quarterfinals with the help of Rain or Shine, which dealt Barako Bull a 116-101 beating to end the Energy Cola’s quarterfinal bid.
Ranidel de Ocampo, one of Talk ‘N Text coach Norman Black’s main gunners, said they just can’t afford to take it easy against a young but determined Air21 five, who can draw inspiration from Powerade, which became just the third eighth-seeded squad to beat a No. 1 seed in B-Meg (now San Mig Coffee) during last season’s Philippine Cup quarterfinals.
“Tingin ko, huwag lang kami magiging overconfident since twice-to-beat kami. Sila (Express) kasi, alam naman nila na may natalo na dati na No. 1 seed, yung B-Meg, nung matalo sila sa Powerade. Kailangan kami maging ready and aware,” explained De Ocampo, who averages 13.36 points and 6.21 rebounds during the elimination round.
The Tropang Texters hold a 2-0 advantage against the Express this conference — 96-89 and 100-94 though they had to grind it out in the endgame in both instances to beat Air21.
Ali Peek, De Ocampo’s frontline partner, said he will do everything he can to protect the shaded lane against Air21’s slashers led by playmaker Mike Cortez and the cat-quick two-guard Bonbon Custodio.
“My main concern is to play defense. I just need to do my job on defense. And that’s gonna be my role against Air21, play defense. Points can be a bonus because I may score tonight but the next game, it could be Ranidel or Kelly (Williams). But as long as we get the win, that’s the most important thing,” said the wide-bodied Peek.
On the other hand, Franz Pumaren said Air21’s first-ever playoff participation under his watch was an achievement in itself, considering the number of role players playing under him.
“It’s definitely a tough task for us. Pero sabi ko nga sa mga players, let’s just seize the moment because we’re playing in the quarterfinals for the first time under my tutelage.
“Probably, except for Mike (Cortez), they haven’t really played in the playoffs. Kahit naman si KG (Canaleta) when he was still with Ginebra, he has not played that much. So I think at the end of the day, it’s the talent level that will take over,” added Pumaren.