Bittersweet feeling as Jericho Cruz makes PBA Finals at expense of college coach Austria
RoS guard Jericho Cruz says SMB coach Leo Austria is like a father to him. Jerome Ascano

JERICHO Cruz gets another major crack at winning his first ever PBA championship as Rain or Shine booked a ticket to the finals of the Commissioner’s Cup on Sunday night.

In doing so, he has to make it at the expense of the man who’s like a father to him.

Although ecstatic after the Elasto Painters closed out their semifinal series against the San Miguel Beermen (3-1) following an emphatic 124-99 win in Game Four, Cruz acknowledged feeling a tinge of sadness seeing former college coach Leo Austria go down in defeat.

“For me, sad din ako because we had something before at Adamson. Sobrang close namin talaga. Coach Leo is like my dad,” said the 25-year-old shooting guard, who finished with 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting in the series-clinching win.

“But at the end of the day, trabaho 'yun. It’s all work.”

The Rain or Shine sophomore said he’s always in touch with the San Miguel coach, and had a short chat with him after the game.

“He just told me to keep it up, keep working hard, and sana tuluy-tuloy na,” he said of Austria, the one who recruited the gung-ho guard for Adamson following his brief stint at Rizal Technological University.

Austria's falling out with officials of the San Marcelino-based school had in fact hastened Cruz' decision to turn pro.

“He’s the one who got me to play for Adamson, so when he left, I left as well,” he said. “He’s the reason why nagpa-draft ako (in 2014). We talked a lot, and he always gives me advice.”

Cruz already had a previous stint in the finals of last year’s Commissioner’s Cup during his rookie season. But he was coming off a foot injury then and was not in top shape when the Elasto Painters lost to Tropang TNT in the deciding Game Seven.

Now, he said he's healthy and ready to go.

“We’ve learned a lot (from last year). At tsaka siyempre, may nadagdag. Si Maverick (Ahanmisi), who helps a lot playing point guard, and si Perre (Henderson-Niles), who’s really a big factor for our team. He doesn’t really score, but his presence inside is really big,” said Cruz.

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Also worth noting is the big role Cruz has gotten this season as one of Rain or Shine’s take-charge guys, especially during the time when combo guard Paul Lee was down with a knee injury.

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All this, Cruz attributes to the break being given him by coach Yeng Guiao.

“Sinusuklian ko lang yung binibigay niyang minute at trust sa akin,” he said of the fiery Rain or Shine mentor.

But everything will be worth it should the Elasto Painters go all the way.

“Mas maganda kung mag-champion kami at mabigyan namin ng second championship si coach Yeng at ang team,” Cruz added.

The team takes a well-deserved rest on Monday, before going back to practice the following day in preparation for the best-of-seven finals.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @gerardmos