ALASKA’S experience trumped Meralco’s resilience as the Aces held off the Bolts, 76-70, on Wednesday night at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum to earn the right to face Rain or Shine in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals.
The Aces squandered a fourth-quarter lead, but regained their bearings in the nick of time to frustrate the Bolts and put their team’s Cinderella run to an end.
Calvin Abueva, the Best Player of the Conference race frontrunner, displayed sheer hustle and heart, best typified by his tip-in from nowhere that put the Aces up for good.
The Aces star and energizer bunny finished with 19 points and eight boards, while RJ Jazul also came through in the clutch by knocking down the insurance free throws.
Alaska thus underlined its status as a perennial title contender as it advanced to its third straight finals appearance and fourth over the last five conferences, proving it has recovered from a devastating Philippine Cup Finals heartbreak against San Miguel Beer.
“We embraced the pain, grieved, and moved on,” Aces coach Alex Compton said. “I think it would’ve been easy for a lot of teams to crumble and wilt.”
Fast forward to this Final Four, the Aces were up against a hungry Bolts side that took them to the limit after coming off an embarrassing conference where they lost all but one of their 11 games.
“There are a whole lot of alibis the guys could’ve used – Meralco’s got destiny, they’re well coached, they’ve got the biggest import,” Compton said. “But our guys didn’t make any excuses and they played ‘til the end.”
Now, the Aces face the Elasto Painters in the championship round in a rare matchup that will see no San Miguel Corp. or MVP group participating for the first time in 16 years.
The Aces had to bleed for the result in the do-or-die game as they gave up an eight-point lead with over seven minutes left and saw the Bolts suddenly go ahead 67-66 after a virtual three-point play by Jared Dillinger.
But Abueva was there to the rescue, putting back Rob Dozier’s miss to put the Aces back in the driver’s seat, before Jazul buried four straight charities that sealed the deal.
Chris Banchero also delivered with 18 points, while Dozier added 14 markers and held the fort with 18 rebounds.
Dillinger led the Bolts with 18 points in a losing effort.
ALASKA 76 – Abueva 19, Banchero 18, Dozier 14, Jazul 9, Thoss 8, Baclao 5, Hontiveros 3, Baguio 0, Dela Cruz 0, Exciminiano 0
MERALCO 70 – Dillinger 18, Onuaku 15, Amer 12, Hodge 9, Caram 6, Faundo 4, Hugnatan 4, Newsome 2, Alapag 0, Bono 0, Buenafe Ry 0
Quarterscores: 22-22, 37-39, 56-50, 76-70