|The Alaska Aces harried and flustered the Meralco Bolts for the entire game to book their first semifinals seat in the post-Tim Cone era.|
Alaska Aces: The breakthrough
by rick olivares
pics by nuki sabio & paul ryan tan
You can take Calvin Abueva out of San Sebastian but you cannot take San Sebastian out of Calvin Abueva.
This isn’t a knock on the player or even his alma mater. While a supremely gifted player, Abueva was also known for his physical game that bordered on the cheap, the vulgar, and the dirty.
With the Alaska Aces, he has been a mostly transformed man.
In the Aces’ biggest match in years where a win against the Meralco Bolts would propel them to the semifinals, Luigi Trillo served a warning to Alaska: “There will be bad calls today on either side. You have to play through them.”
What happened instead was that both Alaska and the Meralco had to play through lots of physical play that was a mixture of the UFC and the WWE.
Alaska, with its chemistry problems seemingly solved, got the start it wanted with some hot shooting behind Cyrus Baguio, JV Casio, and Abueva to jump out to a 19-5 lead with 6:25 to play in the first quarter. After both teams traded baskets, Meralco point guard Sol Mercado knocked down Alaska point guard RJ Jazul with a forearm shiver that sent the former Letran Knight to the floor. Jazul took exception to the shot and got in Mercado’s face. Words were exchanged and the gauntlet thrown giving Abueva the impetus to take shots at Meralco.
His convenient target was former NLEX teammate Clifford Hodge who he did not like. Abueva backed him up, knocked him down, and when he fought a pick left him an elbow to the jaw.
At the 1:52 mark, after a battle for the lose ball, Hodge took a tumble out of bounds and Abueva made sure that he fell on the Bolts’ rookie. From the replay on the widescreen at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, the crowd, swelling from anticipation of the Ginebra-Rain or Shine match that was to follow, howled in a mix of laughter and derision.
After swishing a jumpshot at the 10:35 mark of the second quarter for a 28-19 lead, Abueva looked at the Meralco bench as if to say, “Did you see that?” Not a few Meralco players hurled a few choice words his way as the player known as the Beast sprinted upcourt with a smile on his face. He knew that Meralco was now completely off their game.
Gabby Espinas and former Alaska center JR Reyes traded elbows and barbs prompting the referees to call a double foul.
At one point, a flustered Cardona, instead of running back on defense, lingered in the backcourt to jaw some with Espinas prompting Meralco head coach Ryan Gregorio to scream at his mercurial forward to help out on defense.
While Meralco was losing its temper, Alaska was making all the big plays. Bolts guard Ronjay Buenafe drove the baseline and attempted a difficult reverse layup but the ball rimmed out.
On the other end, Cyrus Baguio drilled a three-pointer.
Seeking atonement, Buenafe drove once more from the baseline. Instead of attempting another reverse, he tried to lay it in straight up but Abueva met him in the air and snatched away the ball ala Charles Barkley as the crowd at the Big Dome whooped it up.
The Aces continued to fend off late charges by Meralco behind the nigh unstoppable Cardona and the fearless drives of Mercado. But the lack of an inside scoring force for the Bolts hurt them as they only got a combined 24 points from JR Reyes, Gilbert Bulawan, Carlo Sharma, and Hodge. Abueva and Gabby Espinas hurt Meralco with their athleticism and strong play inside despite a poor outing from Sonny Thoss. With Thoss in foul trouble, Tony dela Cruz slipped into the slot where he pulled down 12 rebounds.
The 88-70 victory was punctuated with a three-pointer by Abueva who pumped his fist after mailing it and a nasty fade away by Cyrus Baguio that he made while almost at a 45 degree angle.
The newfound confidence of Alaska with its physical play (largely because of Abueva and Espinas who finished with tallies of 18 points and 12 rebounds and 13 and 7 respectively) call to mind a bygone era of the Aces when they trotted out the Bruise Brothers in Ricky Relosa and Yoyoy Villamin.
Inside the dugout after the win, Espinas has his teammates in stitches with some jokes while Abueva simply nodded his appreciation. The Beast isn’t the war machine he was when he was with San Sebastian. It’s a different league and team. Once he’s off the court, he is a different man. He engaged RJ Jazul in animated conversation that was totally unrelated to basketball.
A pleased Trillo walked in Cyrus Baguio who both came from the post-match press conference. Baguio had one of his better games of the year as he scattered 18 points across three quarters. Trillo congratulated his players. “We got off to a good start and we never let go,” he said. “Now we have a breakthrough win. And we’re in the Philippine Cup semis (the first time they booked any slot in the post-Tim Cone era). It’s been a while now but it is good to be back. We’ll try to go for more. But this is just a sweet feeling.”