Meralco officially secured the second seed and the last twice-to-beat advantage in the 2021 PBA Philippine Cup quarterfinals, but not before surviving Calvin Oftana and NLEX, 104-101, Friday at the DHVSU Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga.
The Bolts led by as many as 20 in the third quarter but needed to hang on down the stretch to turn back the Road Warriors and clinch the playoff incentive for the first time in franchise history.
Allein Maliksi put together another strong offensive showing by leading six Bolts players in double-digit scoring with 22 points and four threes along with four rebounds and an assist, while Alvin Pasaol was great off the bench and tallied 17 in just 19 minutes.
Mac Belo added 16 points and four threes alongside seven boards and five assists, Raymond Almazan ended up with a double-double of 13 and 11 boards to go with three blocks, while Bong Quinto collected 10 markers, eight dimes and seven rebounds alongside two steals in the win.
Anjo Caram also added 10 for Meralco, which improved to 8-2 and is already assured of the No. 2 spot even if it loses its last game on Thursday since it holds the tiebreaker over Magnolia (8-3).
"It's just a game that we wanted to win," coach Norman Black said in the post-game presser. "We know we have a game against Ginebra tomorrow (Thursday) where we might be a little bit tired because we're playing back-to-back games, so we felt like this game was the most crucial one, and it was a must win for us if we wanted to get the twice-to-beat."
"The guys just came out and played their hearts out, particularly in the first, I would say, 40 minutes of the game. The last eight minutes maybe weren't very pretty, but at this point of the season, every win counts, and now we can look forward to our game tomorrow against Ginebra and look forward to the playoffs," Black added. A hot-shooting Meralco team was actually ahead by 19, 101-82, with seven minutes to go and looked poised to cruise the rest of the way, but the previously torrid offense suddenly went ice-cold and failed to produce a single field goal until the final minute, paving the way for an NLEX resurgence in the clutch.
The Road Warriors scored the next 13 points and pulled within six after a big Oftana triple cut the lead to 101-95 with 1:40 on the clock.
Quinto ended the scoring drought with a basket in the final 35 seconds, but Oftana drilled another triple to make it a five-point game, 103-98, with 26 ticks left.
After Nard Pinto failed to put the game out of reach by missing both his free throws in the ensuing possession, Oftana came up huge once more with another triple off a timeout to slice the deficit down to two, 103-101, in the last 2.4 seconds.
Fortunately, Meralco pulled through, as Almazan was fouled and hit his first free throw to make it a three-point game. The big man missed his second foul shot, but Quinto tapped the ball out of bounds, leaving NLEX with no time left to pull off a last-second shocker.
His second foul shot missed, but NLEX couldn't retrieve the ball quick enough to pull off a last-second shocker. Meralco shot 53.3 percent from the field, made 13-of-21 shots from deep and handed out 26 assists as a team in the win.
"Tonight, it was more about the guys who have been here -- the guys like Allein, who stepped up and had a big game for us tonight. And we're happy for that, and we're happy to get that twice-to-beat. It's the first time in the history of the Meralco franchise that we've been able to do it," commented Black.
The Bolts have one more game to play in the elimination round and will take on defending champion Barangay Ginebra (4-6) to cap off a back-to-back. The Gin Kings are in a must-win situation; in 16 scenarios presented by PBA statistician Fidel Mangonon III, there are only two instances wherein Ginebra can still figure in a playoff for no. 8 if they lose against Meralco.
Despite the game essentially being a non-bearing one, Black assured that the Bolts will come out trying to win against the same team it has faced in the finals three times in the last five seasons.
"Everybody knows that we have a little bit of a one-sided rivalry against Ginebra, but our games are always competitive, they're always tough. So I'm expecting the same thing tomorrow," Black remarked. "All I can tell you is that we'll be there to win the basketball game. Even if we've already qualified for the twice-to-beat, we'll be there to beat Ginebra tomorrow."
NLEX, which finished the elimination round with a 5-6 record, is still assured of a playoff spot and will have to wait for the games to finish to see if it will end up as the sixth or seventh seed.
Oftana led the Road Warriors with a career-high 34 points on 12-for-18 shooting, including a blistering 8-for-11 clip on threes as well as three rebounds, two blocks, one assist and one steal. His eight threes, according to Mangonon, are a new all-time record for a rookie, breaking Allan Caidic's seven threes made in Game 2 of the 1987 Open Conference Finals.
Raul Soyud finished with 14 points, 12 boards and a steal, while JR Quinahan tacked on 13, five rebounds and four dimes in the loss.
Meralco 104 - Maliksi 22, Pasaol 17, Belo 16, Almazan 13, Quinto 10, Caram 10, Pinto 8, Jackson 2, Hodge 2, Baclao 2, Jamito 2, Newsome 0.
NLEX 101 - Oftana 34, Soyud 14, Quinahan 13, Trollano 9, Ighalo 8, McAloney 7, Paniamogan 6, Cruz 3, Semerad 3, Miranda 2, Alas 2.
Quarters: 30-20, 65-54, 89-74, 104-101.
- Chris Newsome and Cliff Hodge played for the first time after being placed in the league's health and safety protocols two weeks ago. Newsome was scoreless in almost eight minutes and was ejected early in the fourth quarter for getting into a scuffle with NLEX's Anthony Semerad, while Cliff Hodge managed two points, three assists and two boards in 17 minutes.
- Meralco shot 61.4 percent from the field in the first three quarters but missed 13 of its 18 shots in the fourth.
- Meralco vs. Barangay Ginebra on Thursday, Sep. 23, at 2:00 p.m