Their backs against the wall, the Barangay Ginebra Kings rose to the challenge and staved off elimination with a big 88-79 victory over the B-Meg Llamados in their PBA Commissioner's Cup best-of-five semifinal series at the Cuneta Astrodome.
The Kings cut the Llamados' series lead to 2-1 as they took the first of three steps towards repeating their 2009 Philippine Cup feat of overcoming a 0-2 best-of-five semifinal deficit. Game 4 is set on Tuesday.
Heroes weren't in short supply for Ginebra in this game.
Nino Canaleta came up big once again in the very same venue where he buried the very same team for 25 points in their March 30 playoff for a semifinal berth, nearly duplicating that feat with 23, including four triples in the fourth period as he picked apart B-Meg's zone defense.
Mike Cortez recorded the first triple double by a local in two-and-a-half years, registering 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists, and helped quell a B-Meg uprising with five straight points in a span of 22 seconds.
Picking up where Cortez left off, Jay-jay Helterbrand almost singlehandedly put away the Llamados five points and two steals in the last three minutes, finishing with 12 points all in all. And rookie Dylan Ababou added some scoring punch with 13 points as he continued to try and fill the void left by the injured Mark Caguioa.
"Cortez and KG, wala na kong mahingi sa guys," said an obviously relieved Coach Siot Tanquincen. Pitch in, pitch in na. That has to be the way kasi kapos. Tulong-tulong na lang kung sino man doon.
"We played better siguro with the sense of urgency. One mistake kasi tanggal na kami e. I think binigyan kami ng lakas ng Diyos. I told the players sometimes rejoice in your suffering because suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance to character, character to hope. Character ng team iyong Ginebra spirit. It's not about x and o's. It boils down to heart. Buhos na lahat, iyon ang kailangan naming gawin."
Ginebra got an added break when B-Meg's versatile forward Marc Pingris was ejected from the game with 10:29 left in the second period for a flagrant foul on Canaleta and an earlier technical foul. Without their primary interior defender and top local rebounder, the Llamados were forced to play a zone for large stretches of the game.
Yet even without Pingris, B-Meg managed to keep in step with Ginebra up to the halftime break, which ended in a 37-all deadlock courtesy of a buzzer-beating triple from James Yap. The Kings gradually began to assert themselves in the second half, establishing a 57-47 lead after Rudy Hatfield's short stab. Former King JC Intal, who topscored for B-Meg with 18 points, led a 10-4 run that cut Ginebra's lead to just 61-57 entering the fourth period.
Denzel Bowles, who finished with only 11 points, hit back-to-back baskets to bring B-Meg to within 64-61. But Cuneta suddenly became the House of Canaleta once more, as the six-five forward hit a triple that triggered a 14-4 Ginebra run. When Canaleta was done, he had buried four three-point shots, the Kings had a 78-65 advantage with seven minutes left, and the Astrodome was rocking.
The Llamados had one last run in them, a 9-0 blast capped by Simon's follow-up of a James Yap air ball that made it 78-74 with 2:46 left. His team needing a basket to break B-Meg's momentum, Cortez sank a pull-up jumper and, following a Helterbrand steal, coolly sank a triple in transition that virtually broke the Llamados' backs.
In their storied PBA history, the Kings have twice won three elimination games in a row in a series. Aside from their 2009-10 Philippine Cup comeback, they also overcame a 1-3 finals deficit against Shell in the 1991 First Conference, with Rudy Distrito capping off the Game 7 win with an off-balanced jumper with one second left that gave Ginebra a two-point win.
E-mail: email@example.com. Twitter: @Sid_Ventura.