Lightning strikes for Bolts
After a horrendous 1-6 start, Meralco has come alive to win six in a row, barging into the PBA Governors Cup semifinals via the back door to preserve the Bolts’ hopes of making it to a third straight finals in the season-ending conference.
Last Friday, Meralco became only the 13th team of 114 pairings in PBA history to overcome a twice-to-win disadvantage and blasted Phoenix, 108-103, in overtime to advance to the best-of-five semifinals against Alaska. The Bolts are only the fifth No. 7 seed to eliminate a No. 2 seed after TNT beat Sta. Lucia Realty in the 2002 Commissioner’s Cup, Ginebra blanked Rain Or Shine in the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup, Air21 upset San Miguel Beer in the 2014 Commissioner’s Cup and Ginebra repulsed Alaska in the 2017 Philippine Cup. Meralco is the first team to achieve the feat in the Governors Cup.
Meralco’s sweep of Phoenix couldn’t have been more timely. Yesterday, Bolts coach Norman Black was inducted into the Ateneo Sports Hall of Fame at the Loyola campus. Black was honored for piloting the Blue Eagles to five straight UAAP titles from 2008 to 2012. He was joined by three track and field achievers Marcel Banzon, Peachy Cheng-Medina and Juny Lim. Additionally, Meralco team manager Paolo Trillo was cited with the Ateneo Sports Hall of Fame Special Award for his contribution to the varsity program. Other non-athletes who were given the Special Award were Frederick Dy Go of badminton, Joey Leviste of chess and JM Silva of high school basketball.
Meralco is geared to extend its win streak to seven games but Alaska won’t be an obliging opponent. They begin their semifinal duel at the Ynares Center Antipolo today, the eve of Black’s 61st birthday.
Trillo said it’s a testament to Meralco’s fighting spirit that the Bolts are still in contention. “We’ve been struggling all conference,” he said. “First, AD (Allen Durham) arrived late to practice with us because of commitments in the US. He came eight to nine days before the opening. Then, a few days before our first game, he strained his back and pulled a muscle. AD hadn’t played since the Governors Cup last season so while in good physical condition, he wasn’t in game shape and it showed early in the conference. His numbers went up when we returned from the FIBA Asia Champions Cup. We were set back a bit because we were all tired from playing in Thailand but AD slowly worked himself into game shape.”
Meralco placed fourth of eight in the Champions Cup, not a bad finish considering Durham’s import partner Diamond Stone checked in the day before the Bolts first game as a late replacement for injured Liam McMorrow. Chris Newsome and Cliff Hodge weren’t allowed to play as locals because they were issued their Philippine passports after turning 16 so their absence made the finish even more commendable. Meralco took a 15-day leave from the Governors Cup and played five games during that period in Thailand.
Injuries made the journey in the Governors Cup even more challenging for Meralco as Ranidel de Ocampo went down with a calf muscle strain after three games, J. D. Dillinger sat out 11 straight contests and Hodge showed up for Friday’s outing in civvies, walking with a cane because of a back issue.
“RDO and Cliff are day to day,” said Trillo. “There’s a chance they may still play in the semis. RDO was ready to play in our first game against Phoenix but he felt tightness in his calf and we didn’t want to push it. Whether RDO and Cliff can play in the Alaska series will depend on how quickly they heal and recover.”
Dillinger was reactivated before the cut-off at the end of the eliminations. He underwent surgery before the conference to remove a bone growth in his knee and is slowly coming along. Dillinger started Friday’s game and shot 1-of-4 field goals in 21:05 minutes.
Durham, 30, was named Best Import in the last two Governors Cups where Meralco bowed to Ginebra in the finals. He’s back to break the jinx. Black has bagged 11 championships as a PBA coach with San Miguel (including a Grand Slam in 1989), Sta. Lucia and TNT but since joining Meralco in 2014, hasn’t captured a crown. Both Black and Durham are on a mission to deliver a first-ever PBA championship to Meralco.