AIR21 simply refused to lose in a game full of adversity, surviving San Miguel Beer, 101-95, in a thrilling double-overtime match on Friday night at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum to notch a breakthrough semifinal appearance in franchise history.
Shrugging off the absence of ejected star guard Joseph Yeo in the second half, the Express came back from 10 points down in the final minute of regulation before hanging tough in the two extra periods to topple the second-seeded Beermen in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup quarterfinals.
“We were able to slay the dragon,” said Express coach Franz Pumaren, ironically a former San Miguel star during his long playing career. “I know basketball experts didn’t even give us a chance, but now we’re here.”
“This victory is so satisfying and priceless.”
Asi Taulava made the buzzer-beating follow-up that sent the game into overtime then hit two big baskets in the second extra period that completed the most compelling reversal this season.
In all, the ageless Taulava tallied 16 points, nine boards, and three blocks - the 41-year-old veteran played for 45 minutes - as he ably provided support for Wesley Withershpoon, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
Taulava also reached the Final Four stage for the first time in seven years.
By reaching the semis for the first time, the seventh-seeded Air21/Shopinas franchise also extended the misery of an underachieving San Miguel side which had enjoyed a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinal stage mid-season tournament.
The Beermen blew what seemed like a won game in regulation when they led, 81-71, with 1:05 to go then simply couldn't save the game in overtime after June Mar Fajardo, Marcio Lassiter, and Sol Mercado fouled out one after the other.
The odds also seemed in the Beermen’s favor when Yeo was thrown out in the second quarter for a flagrant foul on Chris Ross, who bungled a handful of free throws in the end.
The Expess became just the fifth seventh seed in history to reach the semis as they stunned a San Miguel side that is in for another round of soul-searching during the break in between conferences.
Air 21 (101) – Witherspoon 26, Anthony 18, Taulava 16, Yeo 11, Villanueva 8, Ramos 8, Cardona 8, Poligrates 5, Borboran 1, Burtscher 0, Menor 0
San Miguel Beer (95) – Jones 23, Fajardo 20, Ross 18, Santos 16, Lassiter 12, Hubalde 2, Lutz 2, Marcado 2, Maierhofer 0, Tubid 0, Lanete 0, Kramer 0
Quarterscores: 21-17, 40-43, 56-65, 82-82, 88-88, 101-95