Sporting Chance: Enjoying the Pressure

On: 18 February 2008

by Joaquin M. Henson, "Sporting Chance"
The Philippine Star, 17 February 2008

Sta. Lucia Realty team manager Buddy Encarnado admitted the other day that when it comes to experience, Purefoods has the edge on a man-for-man basis in the raging PBA All-Filipino finals.

The records prove it.

Purefoods is playing in its 20th title series, 12th in an All-Filipino conference, in 20 years and only hardly used free agent reserve Omanzie Rodriguez and rookies Chico Lanete, Robert Sanz and Andy Larong are finals first-timers among the Giants. The franchise has also won seven PBA titles, including four of the All-Filipino variety.

In contrast, Sta. Lucia is in its first All-Filipino finals since entering the league in 1993 and only Marlou Aquino, Dennis Espino and Paolo Mendoza are title series veterans, meaning Kelly Williams, Bitoy Omolon, Joseph Yeo, Denok Miranda, Norman Gonzales and rookies Ryan Reyes, Christian Coronel, Dennis Daa, Melvin Mamaclay and Philip Butel are all first-timers.

But in Game 1 at the Big Dome last Friday, it was Sta. Lucia that showed more poise down the stretch than Purefoods. The Realtors came back from a jittery start to finish strong and pull off a 109-97 win. Encarnado was all smiles after the rousing victory.

"I told the guys to just enjoy the pressure," he said. "Nobody expected us to be in the finals and now that we're here, we'll make the most of it and enjoy the moment. I think our preseason bonding did a lot for our team. We went to Boston for training and played well in Brunei. Now, we're reaping the benefits."

Drawing first blood in what is expected to be a long drawn-out series is a big psychological boost for Sta. Lucia, particularly as in PBA history, 42 of 65 teams that took the opener in a best-of-7 duel went on to clinch for a winning percentage of 65 percent. Purefoods' consolation is in 10 of the last 19 best-of-7 ties, the team that won Game 1 ended up losing the series.

Although Williams was devastating in slamming the door on the Giants, the Realtors' Twin Towers of Espino and Aquino played key roles in the Game 1 win. Sta. Lucia's senior citizens played their butts out, worked extra hard on both ends and showed they're far from hanging up their sneakers.

Espino, 34, shot 20 points in 26 minutes and his daring dive to save a loose ball in the fourth quarter led to a decisive dunk by Williams to seal the outcome. Aquino, 35, compiled 13 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 27 minutes off the bench to stamp his authority as the indestructible Skyscraper. More importantly, Aquino took the wind out of Romel Adducul's sails, rendering the General impotent with five fouls in the homestretch.

Encarnado paid tribute to his veterans.

"I owe it to Kevin Barboza who got both Dennis and Marlou going again," said Encarnado. "Kevin handled our training in Boston last year. I saw the guys throwing up because of how hard Kevin worked them over. But they never complained."

The Boston training went from Monday to Saturday, thrice a day, for two weeks and included five games against different USBL (United States Basketball League) pro teams. Barboza, a former Eastern Connecticut State University star, supervised the camp from start to finish.

Encarnado brought seven players to the camp - Espino, Aquino, Williams, Omolon, Reyes, Miranda and Mendoza.

"It was a real eye-opener for me as management and I will pursue it again this year for the rest of the team," said Encarnado.

Coach Boyet Fernandez made contact with Barboza to arrange the camp.

Barboza is a member of the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Association and is CEO of HoopGains, Inc. which has organized camps for over 11,000 players of all ages in New England. He has over 20 years of coaching experience at the high school, collegiate Division I and European pro levels.

"I promised Kevin if we make it to the finals, we'll bring him to Manila," said Encarnado. "I'm now arranging for him to fly over and hopefully, he can be here for Game 3 on Wednesday."

Last Friday's win was Sta. Lucia's first over Purefoods this conference. In the eliminations, Purefoods beat the Realtors twice, 96-89 and 84-81.

There's no question both teams belong in the finals. Before Game 1, they both brandished identical records of 16-9. Sta. Lucia was No. 1 in defense, steals, turnover points and turnovers forced while Purefoods was No. 2 in defense and in free throw percentage.

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