ANTIPOLO – Phoenix coach Ariel Vanguardia rued what turned out to be a conference-ending injury to Eugene Phelps that proved to be turning point of team’s disappointing campaign in the PBA Governors’ Cup.
Bringing Phelps early in their buildup for a season-ending conference where they set their sights on at least Top Four finish in the eliminations, the Fuel Masters won their first two games, before getting riddled in a losing streak on the way to getting eliminated from playoff contention altogether following a 116-111 loss to Rain or Shine on Wednesday night.
After averaging 30.7 points on 25.3 attempts and 16.3 boards in his first three games, Phelps was held to just 13 points on 13 attempts, although he grabbed 17 boards in his fourth and last game for the Fuel Masters against NLEX where he was already nursing what was initially thought of as just a bone bruise in his left foot.
It turned out Phelps suffered a worse injury, a stress fracture, Vanguardia bared, that forced the import to miss the remainder of the conference.
“He was playing with pain and he wasn’t the same,” Vanguardia said. “Dun sa mga losses namin na close losses where, in fact, we could’ve gotten those three games na close when he was still playing. Dun nag-snowball na and we had to make a change, and Brandon wasn’t in shape yet."
“Nawala lahat yung preparation namin, na long preparation,” he added. “We were winning tune-up games with Eugene. We brought him early. Lahat nun natapon when he was injured. We didn’t know when he was coming back. It ended up that he couldn’t come back."
Brandon Brown initially came in as a stand-in import, but wound up as their de-facto import as the perimeter-oriented reinforcement acquitted himself well by averaging 35.8 points, 17.8 boards, 3.6 assists, 3.2 blocks, and 2.6 steals, with numbers including in their loss to ROS where he registered 33 points, 20 boards, four assists, and two blocks in 42 minutes.
“Brandon was getting the groove, but they’re totally different players: one is playing from the outside, itong isa, si Eugene plays from the inside,” Vanguardia said. “Magkaiba pa yung personality. Si Eugene is more of a quiet type, itong isa is loud, so yung chemistry….and we had to make some changes.”
As a result, the Fuel Masters missed the quarterfinals for the first time in their young history in the league as Vanguardia was left without a choice but to stick to the positives from their latest loss where the erased an early 18-point deficit and made it a see-saw affair down the stretch.
“At least we saw a glimpse of what this team is capable of doing,” Vanguardia said. “We cannot play only in the second half. If we played the same way we did in the second half sa first half, baka iba yung naging (outcome).
“Pero masakit lang na we’re out of the running,” he added. “We have to be able to find a way kung paano mag-click ‘to going forward.”