It takes a special kind of character, a special kind of courage to overcome adversities and reclaim the Philippine Basketball Association crown.
But San Miguel Beer did more than that as it weathered all kinds of storm to pull off a masterful 119-97 victory over TNT Tropang Giga in Game 7 of their best-of-seven finals series to reclaim the PBA title late Sunday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Despite playing in his first finals appearance, CJ Perez was at his best while six-time Most Valuable Player June Mar Fajardo proved that he is still the league’s strongest force when he spearheaded the Beermen to their 28th overall title and first crown after a three-year drought.
Perez fired 25 points and seven assists while Fajardo registered another monstrous double-double performance of 19 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks for the Beermen, who drew impressive numbers from Vic Manuel, Marcio Lassiter, Moala Tautuaa, Simon Enciso and Chris Ross.
“I cannot imagine us winning a championship despite struggling in the playoffs,” said San Miguel coach Leo Austria, whose wards blew hot and cold in the playoffs.
In fact, they were trailing in the last two games of the series, 2-3, but they refused to give up while breaks bounced their way as the Tropang Giga suffered a string of setbacks, including the injuries of Jayson Castro and Glenn Khobuntin as well as head coach Chot Reyes who was placed under safety protocols in the most crucial game of the conference.
“We were lucky that we snatched Game 7 against TNT. We were given a chance to play in Game 7 and that players are determined to win the game.”
But climbing the summit wasn’t easy.
After a dominant era in which they won eight of the past 14 titles, the engine that kept the Beermen running started to sputter as Fajardo crashed with a fractured shin while preparing for the Philippine Cup in 2020.
With that, the Beermen was forced to play without him during the bubble conferences, paving the way for the rise of new superpowers — Barangay Ginebra San Miguel and TNT Tropang Giga.
The Kings ruled the 2020 Philippine Cup in Clark while the Tropang Giga emerged victorious in Bacolor, prompting the Beermen to reorganize and shake up their roster.
The Beermen sent veteran forward Arwind Santos to NorthPort for Manuel while playmaker Alex Cabagnot was shipped to Terrafirma for Simon Enciso.
The Beermen were able to rebuild around young players like Perez, Manuel, Enciso, Rodney Brondial, Robbie Herndon, Jericho Cruz and Fajardo while Chris Ross, Lassiter, Romeo and Tautuaa were retained to provide veteran presence.
The gamble didn’t pay off right away as they fell short in the Governors’ Cup despite having a super import in former National Basketball Association first-round pick Shabbaz Muhammad.
But in the All-Filipino, the conference that they had dominated from 2014 to 2018, the Beermen flaunted their might and won nine of their 11 games in the eliminations to emerge as the top seed heading into the playoffs with a twice-to-beat advantage.
They beat Blackwater in the quarterfinals before escaping by the skin of their teeth against the tough Meralco squad in the semifinals to book a finals duel with the Tropang Giga.
Austria said the difficulty they went through in the playoffs, especially against Meralco, prepared them for a tough battle against TNT.
“Our players came from different teams and had no prior championship experience,” he said.
“I think our recent playoff series really helped us because we were able to develop the winning character, which is important because the coaching staff and the management know how to win a championship.”
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