During the traditional PBA post-game interview, Barako Bull center Dorian Pena, named best player by the TV panel, requested that he and his fellow Energy old-timers not be called "manong." They weren't that old yet, he reasoned.
They certainly showed that last night. The Energy's veterans proved they still had a spring in their step, pulling away in the fourth quarter to stun defending champion Talk 'N Text, 84-77, to grab Game 1 of their best-of-five semifinal series in the PBA Commissioner's Cup.
Coach Junel Baculi went with an almost exclusively 30-and-above lineup, with only import Gabe Freeman still in his 20s, and the "Manong Brigade" as they were christened by the TV panel, took the fight to the undermanned Tropa with a 15-4 salvo to open the fourth period which served as a big-enough cushion to keep TNT at bay.
"I give credit to the veterans," Baculi said. "They just refused to lay down and die."
Danny Seigle, soon to be 36, continued his return to form, scattering 11 of his 19 points in the fourth period as he used his size and speed to outplay smaller defenders thrown at him. Wynne Arboleda, 35, hit back-to-back triples that gave the Energy a 75-64 lead. Willie Miller, 34, chipped in 10 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. And Pena, 34, had a courageous double-double of 11 points and 12 rebounds as he had his way off the boards against TNT's depleted frontline.
The Tropa lost power forward Kelly Williams to a big cut above his eye in the first quarter, and the versatile forward had to be brought to the hospital. His status for Game 2 on Thursday is still uncertain.
TNT was already without the injured Ali Peek, and with Williams also sidelined, Barako Bull just dominated the boards, outrebounding the Tropa 63-45. Donell Harvey, forced to work double time under the boards, was the lone volume rebounder for TNT, grabbing 22 rebounds in 43 minutes, but all that work caused his offense to suffer as he finished with only nine points on 3-of-10 shooting.
The entire TNT team actually appeared rusty following that long layoff. They shot only 33% from the field, including just 6-of-30 from beyond the arc with Jimmy Alapag and Ryan Reyes shooting a combined 1-of-9. Alapag, the reigning MVP, went scoreless in 21 minutes.
Only Jayson Castro, with 27 points, and Larry Fonacier, who had 14, managed to score in double digits as the Tropa scored their lowest point total this conference.
But Baculi knows better than to write the Tropa off, and he's expecting them to come out strong for Game 2.
"We played TNT on an off night," the veteran mentor noted. "They last played March 28, and it showed in their rustiness. The shooting percentage of their three points is not this way. Alapag didn't score, Kelly got off with an injury, they'll come back stronger and we have to get ready for that. With Coach Chot and TNT's experience they will fight back. We have to get ready for that. They will make adjustments. They're not the defending champs for nothing."
The Energy might have to go into Game 2 without another veteran, Ronald Tubid, after the shooting guard injured his left shoulder diving for the loose ball late in the game.
"[He] went for the ball and slammed his shoulder on the floor," Baculi said. Tubid finished with seven points and eight rebounds but had to be helped off the court.
Aside from the solid play of the locals, the Energy got another sterling effort from Freeman, who came through with 21 points and 16 rebounds as he and Seigle posed match-up problems for TNT at both forward spots.
"We don't need a big guy as our import because we have veteran big guys," Baculi noted. "Very fitting ang pagdating ni Gabe."
Whatever adjustments TNT comes up with in Game 2, Baculi will still be sticking with the "manong" crew that got them this far.
"If our veterans can sustain it, if their legs can do it, then so be it. They're showing their heart, their desire. May confidence kami sa kanila."
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Sid_Ventura.