CHRIS Ross sank two pressure-packed free throws before pulling off a game-clinching steal to ice Meralco’s 89-88 win against Air21 side on Wednesday night in a wild PBA Commissioner’s Cup match at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The Express were just 49 seconds away from victory after riding on the broad shoulders of bullstrong import Michael Dunigan, who scored 14 of Air21’s last 20 points with most of his shots coming from point-blank range.
But the University of Oregon product committed two big turnovers in the endgame, the last an ill-timed cross-court pass intended for Mark Isip which Ross intercepted.
To make matters worse, Ross was then fouled by Isip, sending the Fil-Am guard to the charity stripe for the marginal free throws.
Air21 had one last chance to salvage the win with 11.9 seconds to play but Mike Cortez lost the handle on the ball in mid-court, allowing the Bolts to escape with their second thriller in a row and improve to 3-3.
Air21 dropped to the cellar in the company of Barangay Ginebra on identical 1-5 records.
“It is really basketball education or us, and yet, it’s a great relief because throughout these learning, we’re finding ways to win,” said a relieved Meralco coach Ryan Gregorio.
“I’m just happy with the kind of warrior-mentality my players have. We lost a big lead. We were teetering on the brink of defeat. And although down by three points, we pulled off the win. Credit goes to Chris Ross,” he added.
The Bolts appeared headed for an easy win after controlling the game three-fourths of the way while enjoying their biggest lead at 60-42.
But the Express began turning to Dunigan in the fourth period and the 24-year-old Air21 reinforcement responded by dropping 30 of his PBA career-high 40 points in the final half.
His efforts though went for naught after those two crucial turnovers that spoiled what could have been a magnificent Express comeback.
Meralco 89 - Dawson 35, Salvacion 18, Cardona 11, Hugnatan 8, Ross 6, Hodge 4, Buenafe 3, Manuel 2, Reyes 2, Artadi 0
Air21 88 - Dunigan 40, Isip 13, Canaleta 7, Custodio 6, Omolon 6, Ritualo 5, Cortez 4, Arboleda 3, Sena 2, Menor 2, Arkins 0, Wilson 0
Quarterscores: 26-19, 49-35, 74-64, 89-88