THEY’VE been to a lot of big games and do-or-die matches before.
For Marc Pingris and Mark Barroca though, there never was a nerve-wracking outing as the one they went through exactly eight years ago during the waning moments of Game 7 of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup Finals against Talk ‘N Text.
Let's go back to May 6, 2012.
The game was so intense and the crowd of 21,046 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum were up on their seats as the best-of-seven finals came down to the final 12.3 seconds with the B-Meg Llamados trailing the Texters, 76-74, following a split from the foul line by the brawny Ali Peek.
B-Meg coach Tim Cone used the first of his two timeouts left, and understandably wanted the ball in the hands of his main man James Yap despite the two-time MVP struggling from the floor.
The Llamados executed the play and had Yap go for the game-tying basket. ‘Big Game’ James missed on a drive off a one-hander, but secured possession following a mad scramble for the ball.
With enough presence of mind, Yap didn’t force the issue even with time ticking away, and instead dished off to an open Denzel Bowles underneath. The rookie import missed the shot and pandemonium suddenly broke out inside the rocking Big Dome.
But the celebration proved premature as officials – amid the noise and ruckus inside the venue - whistled a bump on Kelly Williams while Bowles attempted the shot. TnT was in penalty and meant two free throws for the B-Meg import with 1.2 seconds left.
The foul shots were a make or break for the Llamados. One miss, and they were dead.
And that when the anxiety started to build up even for a battle-scarred player like Pingris and Barroca, who was then playing his rookie season in the league.
“Nagdadasal na ako nung time na yun,” Pingris, ever the prayerful person, recalled of those tense moments. “Kinakabahan ako kasi nakikita ko kay Denzel kinakabahan din siya.”
“Kahit na lagi kong sinasabi sa sarili ko, 'Tiwala lang, tiwala lang,’ pero may halo pa rin akong kaba.”
Barroca, a reliever for point guards Josh Urbiztondo and Jonas Villanueva, felt the same, adding, “Nasa bench lang ako, nagtsi-cheer. Pero grabe ang kaba ko noon.”
For Bowles, only 23-years-old then and playing in only his second overseas stint, it was perhaps the two most pressure-packed free throws of his basketball career. Game on the line. Championship at stake.
But proving he has ice in his veins, the young import blocked all distractions and coolly sank two from the foul line to tie the game at 76, giving the Llamados a new lease on life.
“Hindi ko alam kung paano nagawa ni Denzel na ma-shoot niya yung dalawang free throws niya,” said Barroca, who was selected No. 5 overall by Shopinas.com during the season draft but was immediately dealt to B-Meg in a three-team trade that involved Don Allado, rookie draftee Brian Ilad and Barako Bull’s Elmer Espiritu.
“Siya mismo naiiyak na nung papunta siya sa free throw line.”
The Texters had one final shot at salvaging the championship. But with no timeouts left, Jason Castro was forced to take a long heave from near midcourt that wasn’t even close of hitting its target.
Bowles was an emotional wreck walking back to the B-Meg bench, welcomed with high-fives by jubilant teammates, a big embrace from a tearful team manager Alvin Patrimonio, and serenaded with chants of ‘Denzel Bowles,’ Denzel Bowles,’ by delirious B-Meg fans.
Ping, who had previously won three championships with the Purefoods franchise, managed to heave a sigh of relief, but knew deep inside the battle wasn’t over yet. Never mind if TnT no longer had fouled-out import Donnell Harvey and hurting players Ryan Reyes, Ranidel De Ocampo, and Jimmy Alapag, who had to be carried out of the floor late in regulation due to cramps.
“Sakto lang. Alam pa rin namin na need ng team na mag-focus sa game,” said Pingris.
But ‘Monster Bowles’ wasn’t to be denied of his Superman moment.
The conference Best Import took over in the extra period, scoring 10 straight points for the Llamados, including a strong drive to the hoop that made it an 86-81 lead inside the final 58 seconds, sending the predominantly B-Meg crowd in a frenzy.
Not even the valiant return of Alapag could turn the tide for the Texters.
As the smoke of battle cleared, the Llamados emerged triumphant, 90-84, as Bowles rose to the occasion and finished with 39 points and 21 rebounds. He scored 11 of B-Meg’s 14 points in the overtime period.
It was the first of six championships won by Barroca with the Purefoods franchise, while likewise the first for Cone with the team since coming on board at the start of the 2011-12 season.
“Oo first championship ko yun kaya memorable talaga sa akin,” said Barroca, still thrilled as he reminisced the event like a student who just passed the bar exams.
Even when the chips were down, Ping kept a positive mindset that B-Meg would be able to weather the storm.
“Lagi kong iniisip nung time na yun kaya naming manalo,” said Pingris, the man entrusted with shouting the fabled ‘Puso’ battlecry of Gilas Pilipinas.
“Kahit na down kami (nung last seconds), tiwala pa rin ako.”
Barroca said the exhilarating come-from-behind win by the Llamados will always be a special moment for him, perhaps one of the biggest Game 7 comeback victories in PBA Finals history.
“Grabe yung game na yun. Kasama na sa (PBA) history yun,” he stressed.
Pingris agreed without hesitation.
“Oo naman, kahit na yun na yata ang pinaka-kabado kong finals,” the veteran big man added.