MERALCO sustained its stunning rise from cellar dweller to championship contender as it shocked TNT Katropa, 94-88, on Monday night to book its first-ever trip to the PBA finals in franchise history.
Cliff Hodge poured in a career-high 32 points, the last on a dagger three-pointer from the right wing that sealed the deal for the Bolts as he stood tallest for a resurgent team that just two conferences ago finished at the bottom of the standings.
Chris Newsome also came through in the clutch with eight of his 15 points in the payoff period while Reynel Hugnatan and import Allen Durham were steady as usual for the Bolts, who closed out their Governors’ Cup semifinal series against their heavily favored sister squad in four games.
“We’ve really come a long way since the first conference,” Bolts coach Norman Black said after leading the franchise to its first finals appearance since acquiring the Sta. Lucia franchise in 2010. “We’re happy to finish the conference on a high note, but it’s not over yet.”
Ironically, Black also led Sta. Lucia to a league championship.
The ejection of Jayson Castro after picking up second flagrant foul late in the fourth hastened the downfall of the Texters, who, after losing just once the entire eliminations, dropped their third straight game to see their campaign go to waste.
Hodge delivered one huge basket after another, none bigger than the triple that gave the Bolts a 91-85 lead with 49.6 seconds left after the Texters had come to within three points on a desperate last-ditch push after Castro was ejected.
Castro led the Texters’ last stand, scoring 12 of his team-high 25 points in the final frame, but was thrown out with over two minutes after picking up a second flagrant foul owing to an elbow on Newsome.
The Bolts also pounced on Mychal Ammons picking up his fifth foul early in the fourth, forcing the TNT import to retreat to the bench for a crucial part of the fourth.
That, along with a play where Jimmy Alapag stole the ball but momentarily fumbled possession, still managed to pass the ball to Newsome, who completed an alley-oop play – proved to be ominous signs for the Bolts.
Meralco 94 - Hodge 32, Durham 19, Hugnatan 16, Newsome 15, Nabong 4, Alapag 3, Amer 2, Faundo 2, Uyloan 1.
TNT Katropa 88 - Castro 25, De Ocampo 15, Ammons 10, Rosario 10, Tautuaa 8, Fonacier 6, Williams 6, Madanly 5, Reyes 3, Rosales 0, Guevarra 0.
Quarterscores: 18-23, 40-44, 64-61, 94-88