AS he let the ball fly from the top of the key over Allen Durham and saw it go through the hoop, Justin Brownlee ran to the other side of the court and let out a shriek before his teammates mobbed him in front of a sellout crowd that looked like fireflies with their phone flashlights turned on.
Whether Barangay Ginebra makes a new winning moment like that or Meralco creates one of its own this time is set to be known as the PBA Governors’ Cup Finals unfolds on Friday night at the Quezon Convention Center in Lucena.
After Brownlee's iconic shot capped an epic title series of the last edition of the season-ending tournament to snap the Gin Kings’ eight-year championship drought, both teams find themselves on the same exact stage again with Ginebra gunning for a repeat.
Meralco, however, is eager to get over the hump and prove that it indeed belongs among the elite in the league. And the Bolts have definitely looked the part this conference where they finished atop the standings and swept Star in their best-of-five semifinal series.
The Bolts were happy to be in the finals last year, but anything less than a championship – the franchise’s first – in the rematch is a failure, as evidenced by their subdued mood after their series-clinching win over the Hotshots.
“Last year, we were celebrating like it was the end of the world, but this time, there was no celebration,” Bolts coach Norman Black said. “There was no celebration on the court, there’s no celebration in the locker room, because we have a higher goal in mind.”
The Bolts can celebrate when they have their own winning moment like Brownlee created for the Gin Kings last year.
Before that can happen, the Bolts have to topple the Tim Cone-mentored Gin Kings, who now have Greg Slaughter after leaning on LA Tenorio, Scottie Thompson, Joe Devance, Japeth Aguilar, and Brownlee last year to beat Meralco.
The Gin Kings have already been tested early in the playoffs as they had to get past grand slam-seeking San Miguel Beer in the quarterfinals before dispatching TNT KaTropa in four games in a heated Final Four matchup.
“We know we’re up against a tough team,” Black said. “We know it’s not going to be easy. We’re up against a great coach, the winningest coach in the league.”
“But at the same time, we have our goals we want to reach,” he was quick to add.
And the Bolts get their first crack at the Gin Kings in Game One of their sequel that tips off at 7 p.m.
The Bolts have their own reinforcements in Jared Dillinger, who missed the last finals due to a hamstring injury, as well as trade recruits Ranidel de Ocampo, Garvo Lanete, and Mike Tolomia, who have all spaced the floor for Durham.
But the backcourt tandem of Best Player of the Conference candidate Chris Newsome and Baser Amer is the key for the Bolts, who even without De Ocampo yet, beat the Gin Kings handily in the regular season, 93-78.
“Tingin ko yung pagtalo nila sa amin this conference, for them, it’s nothing,” Tenorio said. “For them, it’s really this finals, ito yung talagang gusto nilang kunin. We’re expecting a different Meralco compared sa nilaro namin ng very first game ng conference.”
And beating the Gin Kings on this stage will legitimize the brewing rivalry.
“I think there has to be wins and losses on both sides for it to be a true rivalry,” Cone said. “I know they see us as a rival.
“The problem with Ginebra is that – in all honesty – everyone’s a rival of Ginebra,” he added. “Everybody looks at Ginebra differently from the other teams, so we’re the rival of Talk ‘N Text; we’re the rival of San Miguel; we’re the rival of Manila Clasico; rival of Alaska, so we take on all-comers.
“That’s just the beauty of being Ginebra – is that you are that team and you have that stature – and also the curse – because everybody’s going to bring their best against you,” the American mentor continued. “But we’re looking forward to our raucous crowd coming out. Hopefully we can play well.”