The Scene Around: A Thriller of a Series

On: 19 February 2008

by Ed Picson, "The Scene Around"
Manila Bulletin, 19 February 2008

The basketball community is in shock. Even Buddy Encarnado and Sta. Lucia head coach Boyet Fernandez themselves had admitted that no one really expected their team to even be in the Finals, much less to lead the Purefoods TJ Giants 2-0 in a best-of-seven.

Encarnado and his band of rahrah boys were conspicuous in their blazing shirts which proclaimed "We Believe". Characteristically, he was observed in his usual place behind the Sta. Lucia bench, cheering, cajoling and encouraging their team as they crawled out from being led by the Giants in Game 1.

Team owner Exequiel Robles was also his usual stoic self up in the stands, trying to look inconspicuous except for some applause here and there.

It took the Realtors three quarters before they could overhaul the Purefoods lead which fluctuated between four and ten points behind a sizzling 12-2 start by Ryan Gregorio's boys.

Covering the game for ABC-5 in Game 1, I took special notice of something that Gregorio had said in a radio interview I had with the two coaches before the start of the series. The Purefoods mentor, in an answer to my question on what was different with the present Sta. Lucia team that got them to the Finals, had said that it is to the credit of coach Fernandez who had somehow motivated his players to be more intense and focused on the objective of winning a game.

Gregorio made specific mention of the way the Sta. Lucia players had been diving for lose balls and playing tough defense.

In Game 1, it was evident that indeed, the Realtors were hell-bent on making so many so-called "basketball experts" wrong.

And while most observers see the infusion of young blood into the team as the reason for their new-found energy, the way veterans Dennis Espino and Marlou Aquino performed proved that the merry mix of experience and youthful fervor could be achieved.

It used to be that the relationship between seniors and neophytes were tenuous because veterans always protected their turf and looked with askance on the new guys on the block. But the way Aquino, Espino et al have been playing good music with Williams, Reyes and the rest of the guys have given Sta. Lucia the unprecedented confidence that has brought them to the enviable position they are in now.

Certainly, the 2-game edge does not a championship make. And facing a powerhouse team like Purefoods is bound to give them more headaches in the following games. But it was amazing to watch a transformation in a team that has long wallowed in the dubious distinction of being a good team on paper but did not know how to win a championship (except the one they got in 2002 with Norman Black).

In Game 1, the inexperience was evident as they played tentatively and with seeming awe at the entire exercise. But something happened after the half-time break, and the players, veterans and newbies alike, buckled down and started believing in themselves.

Now it looks as if it has snowballed and Purefoods will have to make the adjustment in order not to dig a deeper hole for themselves. And as shown in their semifinals series against Red Bull, the Giants can make the necessary adjustment when needed.

This championship is far from over and I'm sure both camps realize it. This will definitely make for a thriller of a series in the games to come.

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