Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren urged his charges to make the most of this big opportunity and the Express readily accepted the challenge.
Getting another brilliant outing from forward Sean Anthony while riding some sort of luck in the stretch, Air21 continued its giant-killing ways with a 103-100 stunner against favored San Mig Super Coffee Tuesday night to take the opener of their best-of-five PBA Commissioners Cup semifinals series at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Still on a high following its stunning two-game victory against second-ranked San Miguel Beer in the quarterfinals, Air21 refused to be slowed down, keeping in step with San Mig Super Coffee majority of the intensely-fought match before coming through with a decisive 10-1 run late in the payoff period and showing steely nerves in a frantic finish.
The 6-foot-4 Anthony came off the bench and had another strong outing with a career-high tying 29 points while import Wes Witherspoon, ageless center Asi Taulava, Joseph Yeo and Aldrech Ramos provided enough lift to help the Express charged back from a 66-74 deficit at the start of the fourth canto.
Like what they have done against the Beermen, the Express stuck close to the Mixers, razing repeated nine-point leads and wiping out a 71-78 deficit behind their lockdown defense and timely buckets.
After San Mig Coffee rookie Ian Sangalang converted a putback that put them ahead anew at 87-85, Air21 stormed back with a eight unanswered points, the last two off Taulava’s freebies with 2:45 left to play.
A split by San Mig Coffee import James Mays kept the Mixers in the hunt, cutting their deficit down to just 88-93 going to the last 1:35 of play.
Then things turned out to be chaotic.
Off a timeout sued by Pumaren, the 6-foot-10 Taulava muscled his way to the lane and got away with a traveling violation as he scored a lay-up off Mays, leaving the Mixers up in arms.
The botched call appeared to be the last straw for Mixers coach Tim Cone, who vented his ire on game officials and was eventually thrown out with a pair of technical freethrows, helping the Express jacked up their lead to 98-88 with 1:17 to go.
The 6-foot-9 Mays refused to simply roll down and die as he scored the Mixers’ next 12 points, the last off a putback of his own miss pulling them to within three with 3.9 ticks to go.
Two missed freebies by Anthony following a pre-emptive foul from San Mig Coffee guard Justin Melton kept the door ajar for the Mixers but Mays ran out of time, enabling the Express to survive.
Game 2 is on Thursday at the Smart-Araneta Coliseum.
The Main Man: Sean Anthony continued his fine performance as he pumped in 29 big points, 13 of them coming in the payoff canto.
Honorable Mentions: Also coming up big for the Express were import Wes Witherpoon, Asi Taulava, Jospeh Yeo and Aldrech Ramos.
Game Turning Point: With the game still hanging in the balance, the Express gained a big break when center Asi Taulava scored a lay-up despite taking three steps while driving to the lane against Mixers import James Mays, a decisive non-call that certainly proved a big blow on San Mig Coffee’s fightback.
He Said It:
Air21 coach Franz Pumaren: “It’s really a team effort. One thing nice about my team right now is we just don’t want to quit. We hustled for every loose ball. A year ago I and Sean Anthony met in a function. I asked him if there's an opportunity for me to get him if he wants to play for us, he said yes. We found somebody suited in what we wanted to do. We still need two more wins. This is just a small step in this series. The beauty right now is we're staying within our course. We're just here to seize the moment. We're the uninvited guest here right now. Things like that (Taulava’s play) happens in basketball.”
They said it (on Twitter):
AIR 21 103 - Anthony 29, Witherspoon 25, Taulava 14, Yeo 11, Ramos 9, Poligrates 7, Cardona 4, Borboran 2, Villanueva 2, Burtscher 0, Camson 0.
SAN MIG SUPER COFFEE 100 - Mays 27, Barroca 11, Simon 11, Devance 10, Sangalang 10, Melton 8, Pingris 7, Mallari 7, Reavis 6, Yap 3, De Ocampo 0.
Quarters: 23-24, 48-51, 66-74, 103-100.