Aaron Black sparks Meralco Bolts to life to level PBA Governors' Cup semi with OT win over TNT Tropang Giga

A career-high 28 points from Aaron Black went a long way in helping Meralco Bolts level their 2023 PBA Governors' Cup semifinal with TNT Tropang Giga with a 124-117 overtime win in Game 2 on Sunday. PBA Media Bureau

Meralco Bolts ended TNT Tropang Giga's winning streak with a thrilling 124-117 overtime win Sunday that tied their 2023 PBA Governors' Cup semifinal series at one game apiece.

It was only the second loss of the conference for the Tropang Giga, who blasted the Bolts by 30 in Game 1 but couldn't find their shooting late as they blew a chance to go up 2-0.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson missed a crucial free throw with 5.6 seconds left in regulation that could have won it outright for TNT, and the team as a whole managed just three points in the extra period.

"We're playing the no. 1 seeded team, so every game is gonna be tough for us," Meralco coach Norman Black said. "That is only their second loss of the conference. So nothing's going to be easy.

"And look at their lineup. They're loaded. So I think every game's gonna be competitive. Even if we have a slight lead by 8 to 10 points they can easily erase that because they are probably the best 3-point shooting team in the league.

Fortunately for us, their last three or four 3-point shots in overtime did not go in. That actually helped us win the game today."

With Game 3 coming up on Wednesday, here are three thoughts on Sunday's encounter.

More energy from the Bolts

Following their lopsided loss last Friday, Black admitted his players were tired from their emotional overtime win over Magnolia Hotshots previously.

But he was also confident they would find their legs quickly, and he was right.

"I was hoping they would come out with more energy today," Black said. "We had a hard game against Magnolia before we played Game 1 and it really showed the first game. I actually did not play some of my guys in the fourth quarter hoping that we would bring the energy today.

"Strategy-wise, we just wanted to get back on defense. That was something we did very poorly in Game 1. If we get back on defense then we can defend them. So that's the first step."

The coach's son, Aaron, agreed: "(We showed) a lot of energy today. Last game we were slow out of the gates. We didn't get our rhythm.

"This game, we wanted to move the ball, get back on defense because TNT is a really good offensive team. We really wanted to get back on defense and make sure they didn't get a lot of fastbreaks."

Typifying the Bolts' turnaround was KJ McDaniels, who pumped in 39 points after being held to just 12 in Game 1.

"KJ played much better today than he did in Game 1," Black noted. "He really gave us a big lift. The level of competition right now as far as the imports, it's really high. The guys who are left are really high-level players so you gotta bring your A-game every night.

"And that was the message I tried to get across to KJ, that the way he played Game 1 wasn't enough for us to win the game. So he would have to raise his level. And from the start of the game you could see the difference in the way he played. He was active defensively, he was controlling the boards, and he was soring inside with authority."

Aaron takes charge

Speaking of the younger Black, Aaron tied his career-high points tally with 28, as he more than made up for Chris Newsome's 1-for-15 shooting.

"I just tried to get what the defense was giving me," he said. "My teammates, they really put me in the right spots, especially at the end those post-ups they gave me the ball. It was definitely a team effort today. We needed everything today. Now we're gonna need everything again on Wednesday.

"We're a team where anybody can go off. You got Allein Maliksi, you got Chris Newsome, KJ of course, Bong. Everybody can really break out. We do this as a team, and we win or lose as a team. I want to make sure that I do my responsibility as a point guard. If it's a good night then it's a good night."

Norman said that the team recognized Aaron's hot hand, explaining: "The players were saying on the bench, 'Let's go to Aaron.' Because he was the one who was hot tonight. He was scoring inside, outside. He was getting to the basket a lot.

"We really wanted to take advantage of that. We have certain plays that he can run to get the ball close to the basket and use his size at the point guard position. But what's more important, he just made shots tonight. That's the most important thing. His shots were going in."

The Bionic Man

With less than 10 seconds left in regulation, Cliff Hodge jumped up high to try and block Hollis-Jefferson's layup.

He lost his balance and hit his head hard on the floor, where he lay for a few minutes before getting up. He managed to return in overtime, even scoring the Bolts' first four points.

"A little banged-up," Hodge admitted of his condition. "I don't know what happened. But as long as we win, I'll do whatever it takes. I'm okay. I'll be ready for the next game."

Norman Black called Hodge a "bionic man," but said they'll still have his head examined.

"He's a bionic man so I think he's okay," added the Meralco coach. "I'm joking about it but we'll have his head checked to make sure he's okay. He hit his head very hard on the floor. But it takes a lot to keep Cliff Hodge down."

Hodge knows it's a necessary step, but insisted he's fine.

"I've had a concussion before playing football when I was younger," said Hodge. "And it didn't feel like that. I just felt light-headed. But concussion protocol, they'll be monitoring me for the next 48 hours. If I feel anything I'll go to the hospital. I think I'm pretty good though."

Hodge said it was his decision to continue playing in overtime, stressing: "I felt a little light-headed but I felt okay enough to play. I wanted to make sure I left it all out on the court."

When told that his coach called him "bionic", Hodge simply smiled and added: "I don't know how I do it, either. I'm always banged up. But at this point in the conference, you try and do whatever it takes to get to that next level.

"We still haven't won a championship so I'll sacrifice anything I need to and everything I need to just to try and get to that next and finally win one for Meralco."