ALASKA overcame a turnover-plagued fourth quarter as it held off Air21’s furious second-half rally to pull off an 87-81 victory and book the first semifinal seat in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup on Saturday night at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Guard JV Casio struck hard in the payoff period, hitting a pair of three-pointers, the last of which gave the Aces an 85-78 cushion with one minute and fifteen seconds left in the game.
The Express only made a three-point field goal in the final two minutes, which proved to be their downfall as they failed to get beyond the quarterfinal stage for the second straight conference.
“I’m not surprised Air21 is in the playoffs. One or two games, they are capable (of beating us),” said Alaska coach Luigi Trillo after steering the Uytengsu franchise to its second straight semifinal appearance.
"In the end, we had a couple of turnovers and some blunders in the endgame. Our defense was better though in the fourth (quarter). But still, we have a lot to improve on," Trillo added.
The Aces, who have now won their last five games, erected a 50-31 lead early in the third canto but still had to sweat in the endgame as the Express simply refused to roll over and die.
Despite quiet offensive games from import Michael Dunigan, Nino Canaleta, Mike Cortez, the Air21 came alive behind Bonbon Custodio and Mark Isip who joined hands in a big fightback that got the Express within 78-80 entering the last two minutes.
That was the closest Air21 could get, though, as the Express were undone by their own defensive lapses.
“We did a good job making it tough on KG. Once he gets started, he’s hard to stop. But I want to give credit to Air21 because they are a tough team. They could easily be in the fourth, fifth or sixth spot (going to the quarterfinals)," said Trillo.
"The nice thing we did is give ourselves an opportunity be fresh and regroup going to the semifinals,” he added.
Alaska will next face the winner of the quarterfinal series between Meralco and San Mig Coffee.
Casio led the Aces with 19 points behind a 4-of-9 shooting from three-point land while Robert Dozier added 17 points, 22 rebounds and four blocks.
Canaleta, on the other hand, led the Express with 16 points, though he was just 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. Dunigan finished with just 13 points and 11 rebounds in a subdued end to what had been an impressive debut season in the league.
Alaska 87 - Casio 19, Dozier 17, Abueva 14, Thoss 12, Baguio 12, Jazul 8, Hontiveros 3, Dela Cruz 2, Reyes 0, Espinas 0
Air21 81 - Canaleta 16, Dunigan 13, Cortez 11, Omolon 9, Custodio 8, Isip 8, Arboleda 8, Baclao 4, Menor 4, Atkins 0, Wilson 0, Ritualo 0
Quarterscores: 28-21, 46-29, 67-60, 87-81