Light­ning strikes for Bolts

The Philippine Star - - SPORTS - By JOAQUIN HEN­SON

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.

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