Sporting Chance: Hunger Versus Desire

On: 20 February 2008

By Joaquin M. Henson, "Sporting Chance"
The Philippine Star, 20 February 2008

Sta. Lucia Realty, hungry for only its second PBA title in 14 years, is out to open a commanding 3-0 lead over Purefoods in Game 3 of the best-of-seven Philippine Cup finals at the Araneta Coliseum tonight.

The Tender Juicy Giants can't afford to lose another one because the probability of recovering from a 0-3 deficit to sweep the next four games is near zero. That means it's a must-win situation for coach Ryan Gregorio whose consolation is he's survived two similar predicaments before.

If there's a team that can come back from a 0-2 hole, it's Purefoods because the Giants have done it twice with Gregorio.

The first Lazarus act came in the 2002 Governors Cup finals where Purefoods squared off with Alaska. The Aces broke out to a 2-0 lead after winning Game 1, 79-73, and Game 2, 106-102, in OT. Then, the Giants rebounded to win three in a row, 80-66, 82-76 and 84-72, before Alaska evened the tie, 85-78, in Game 6. Purefoods went on to clinch the title, 91-76, in Game 7.

Rey Evangelista, Kerby Raymundo, Richard Yee and Roger Yap played on the 2002 championship squad and they're still with the team. Their experience in surviving a pressure cooker will come in handy tonight.

The second rise from the grave was in the 2006 Philippine Cup semifinals, once again pitting Purefoods against Alaska. The Aces opened a 2-0 advantage after taking Game 1, 94-92, and Game 2, 86-71. The Giants barely won Game 3, 92-89, and lost a 91-77 decision in Game 4 to fall behind, 1-3. But in a miraculous comeback, Purefoods defied the odds by winning the next three outings, 85-74, 99-96 and 90-89, to advance to the finals.

The Giants rode on the momentum to trounce Red Bull in six games to bag the crown.

Eight players from that team remain in Gregorio's roster -- James Yap, Raymundo, Marc Pingris, Yee, Noy Castillo, Roger Yap, Evangelista and P. J. Simon. The conference is difficult for Purefoods to forget because that was when Eugene Tejada suffered a career-ending injury on his vertebrae during a game against Red Bull in the elimination round.

To this day, the Giants wear a No. 33 patch on their uniforms to honor Tejada who is slowly making progress in trying to walk on his own again.

Gregorio is hoping Tejada's remarkable recovery from waist-down paralysis will inspire the Giants to notch their first victory of the series tonight.

But it won't be easy turning back Sta. Lucia. Realtors coach Boyet Fernandez used a deep rotation to take the starch out of Purefoods in the homestretch of the first two games. Because James Yap and Raymundo play major minutes for the Giants, they usually tire out in the late going when Fernandez' pit-bull defenders are at their fiercest.

In Game 1, the Realtors outscored the Giants in the fourth period, 30-23. In Game 2, it was the same story as Sta. Lucia took the last quarter, 31-20, with James scoring only two of his 28 points and Raymundo six of his 22 in the final 12 minutes.

James and Raymundo took 39 of Purefoods' 74 field goal attempts -- 52.7 percent -- in the series opener. They threw up 41 of 78 -- 52.6 percent -- in Game 2 where the pair played a combined 87 minutes and attempted 22 of the team's 38 free throws -- 57.9 percent. No doubt, Gregorio's supporting cast must wake up if only to prevent the Realtors from overly concentrating on James and Raymundo from start to finish.

In Game 2, Jondan Salvador logged only eight minutes and Romel Adducul, nine, as Gregorio went to shorter and quicker players to throw off Sta. Lucia. The ploy backfired as the Realtors won the battle of the boards, 51-44, and used the advantage to create tempo, scoring 12 fastbreak points compared to Purefoods' six.

Clearly, both the Giants and Realtors are defense-oriented. In its 16 wins before the finals, Purefoods held opponents to an average of 85.1 but in its nine losses, the average ballooned to 101.7. The Giants are at their best when holding opponents down to less than 90. Sta. Lucia limited opponents to an average of 84.9 in its 16 wins and 98.2 in its nine defeats.

In Game 1, Sta. Lucia did a good job of distributing the wealth, collecting 19 assists (to Purefoods' nine) and generating 36 bench points to the Giants' 21. The Realtors' pressure defense, anchored on Denok Miranda delaying the advance in the backcourt, led to eight steals (compared to Purefoods' three), 20 Purefoods turnovers (against Sta. Lucia's 13) and 25 Sta. Lucia turnover points (the Giants had only 13).

Sta. Lucia's outside gunners were on target whenever Purefoods played the zone, burying 8-of-18 triples to the Giants' 6-of-17.

Fernandez also brought the Twin Towers back to life, playing veterans Dennis Espino and Marlou Aquino together in stretches where Purefoods couldn't decide whether to double the post or not.

In Game 2, Purefoods started Evangelista, Castillo and Omanzie Rodriguez -- all of whom didn't play in the opener -- and for a while, it looked like the Realtors were goners and trailed by nine at the half. But in the end, a late spurt propelled Sta. Lucia to victory.

Purefoods had less turnovers but Sta. Lucia had a lot more assists, 22-15, with Miranda and Ryan Reyes collecting 10 together. The key was in rebounding which the Realtors dominated.

If Purefoods fails to win tonight, expect the broom to make an appearance on Friday.

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