Phoenix plots rise to semis with renewed focus on defense, chemistry with returning import Phelps
Phoenix's familiarity with import Eugene Phelps is one of the reasons coach Ariel Vanguardia is optimistic for their Governors Cup bid to crack the semis. Jaime Campos

PHOENIX starts its daunting quest to join elite status in the PBA as it opens its Governors’ Cup campaign on Wednesday night against Kia at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.

While the spotlight is on San Miguel Beer, reigning titlist Barangay Ginebra, and other perennial contenders, the Fuel Masters are eager to gatecrash the party as they aim for their first semifinal appearance in their young history.

“Ambitious kami this conference eh,” Phoenix coach Ariel Vanguardia said. “We feel like we have a chance, although alam na natin yung mga favorites will be the defending champion and the grand slam-seeking San Miguel, we feel that we have a chance knocking at the Final Four and then take it from there.”

The Fuel Masters are coming off a Commissioner’s Cup were they squandered a shot at a Top Six berth that entailed at least a best-of-three series, instead settling for the seventh seed after losing their last two games in the eliminations, and succumbing to second seed and eventual champion SMB.

“I think it was a disappointing (finish) last conference, pero we had to move on,” Vanguardia said. “We’ve learned from mistakes sa dalawang crucial game na we couldn’t make the crucial stops, kaya this conference, very defensive minded na yung team.”

The Fuel Masters are also one of the teams fielding the same imports from the last edition of the season-ending conference, banking on the Eugene Phelps, a prolific forward who said he’ll have a more conscious effort to involve his teammates this conference.

“Feel namin na may chemistry kami with Eugene kasi alam na namin at alam na rin niya yung liga, at yun yung magiging edge namin,” Vanguardia said. “We’re one of the more intact teams. Kailangan makita namin sa game yun.”

Vanguardia also predicted a breakout performance from Joseph Eriobu, the steadier play of point guard Gelo Alolino, and the leadership of RJ Jazul as the Fuel Masters cope without Gilas rookie sensation Matthew Wright in the early part of the conference.

“Malaking kawalan (si Matt), pero confident naman ako kasi ang focus nga namin is defense,” Vanguardia said. “We might not score as much pag nandyan si Matt, pero we’d like to think that we can defend.”

Phoenix is taking the court at 4:15 p.m. again a Picanto side that’s parading former GlobalPort Markeith Cummings.

Alaska, another squad with a returning import Buck Henton, tangles with NLEX and untested reinforcement Aaron Fuller in the second game opening night at 7 o’clock.


Follow the writer on Twitter: @KarloSacamos