7 p.m. – Ginebra vs Alaska
The Star Hotshots completed their unexpected journey to the semifinals yesterday after handing the Phoenix Fuel Masters another pounding, this time with a 91-71 victory that completed a sweep of their best-of-three quarterfinal series in the PBA Philippine Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
A 15-1 run conspired by the trio of Paul Lee, Marc Pingris and Justin Melton was all the Hotshots needed in putting the final nail on the coffin on the Fuel Masters and book a place in the semis for the first in the post-Tim Cone era.
Lee, who finished with 17 points, scored eight in that run which saw Star turn a slim 42-37 lead in the early goings of the third period into a commanding 57-38 advantage with 5:26 remaining.
Pingris, who basket off Lee’s assist led to that scoreline, had 16 points and nine rebounds, even as Ian Sangalang and rookie Jio Jalalon added 11 points each for the Hotshots, who used the binge to hike their lead to 26 points, 79-53, during garbage time.
Making the semis is a huge reward for a team that entered the season-opening conference with little expectations despite the arrival of Lee in a trade with the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters.
Star lost its first two games, won the next three, then dropped two straight, before closing the eliminations at 7-4 thanks to a four-game winning streak.
The quarters series with Phoenix began in a hard way for Star, before unleashing a fiery barrage in the second half in a sequel to its 123-79 win in the eliminations last Dec. 10, before completing the trilogy last night.
“Nung start naman ang goal ko is to improve everyday. At kung anu man ang marating namin, papasalamat kami,” said Hotshots coach Chito Victolero, in his first year at the helm. “But now na nandito kami sa sitwasyon na nasa top four, I’m very thankful kasi tinrabaho naman ng buong team.
“Kaya siguro nakarating kami dito kasi may gusto silang patunayan, they want to bring something to the (Star) fans.”
However, the job is far from done for the Hotshots, whose future opponent remains undecided, but both fancied nonetheless.
One of the possibilities is a Manila Clasico encounter with Ginebra and Star’s former coach Tim Cone, who brought the Hotshots to their last semifinal appearance in the 2015 Governors’ Cup.
The other possible opponent are the Alaska Aces, the last team that beat the Hotshots via a 97-90 win in overtime last Jan. 11.
Rookie Matthew Wright finished with 24 points for the Fuel Masters, whose conference was marred by a string of lopsided losses, including an average of 31.7 points in three games.
Meanwhile, Coach Tim Cone ruled out the notion that the momentum has swung in favor of Barangay Ginebra San Miguel as they try to beat the Alaska Aces anew for a semifinals berth tonight in their do-or-die quarterfinal match.
Ginebra forced tonight’s lone game set at 7 p.m. In a big way after erasing a 17-point third quarter deficit and won 85-81 over Alaska last Sunday at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.
While many see the famous come-from-behind victory as a momentum-changer, Cone warned of seeing the Aces vent their ire at his team’s expense.
“All we did was tying the series, and a tie doesn’t help you one way or the other,” Cone said after Sunday’s victory.
Added Cone: “It’s really hard to get momentum in a series, unless you are down 3-0 and you make it 3-3. Now, you got momentum. In this short of a series, there’s no momentum but we got a little bit of confidence and a little bit of belief that we can play with Alaska.”
Forcing the rubber match was a distant possibility during the third quarter after Alaska took a 53-36 lead, only to see Ginebra unleash an epic New England Patriots-like comeback behind Sol Mercado, LA Tenorio, Scottie Thompson and defensive-minded Kevin Ferrer.
STAR 91 – Lee 17, Pingris 16, Jalalon 11, Sangalang 11, Maliksi 8, Barroca 7, Abundo 6, Ramos 6, Melton 5, Brondial 4, Reavis 0, Javier 0, Dela Rosa 0.
PHOENIX 71 – Wright 24, Enciso 12, Intal 10, W. Wilson 6, Borboran 5, Baguio 4, J. Wilson 3, Torres 3, Kramer 2, Alolino 2, Dehesa 0, Miranda 0.
Quarters: 22-18; 42-35; 65-49; 91-71.