Meralco survived a monster game from Calvin Oftana as it chalked up a 104-101 win over NLEX to formally secure a twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals of the 46th Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Philippine Cup yesterday at the Don Honorio Ventura State University Gym in Bacolor, Pampanga.
Allein Maliksi, Raymund Almazan and Alvin Pasaol were impressive, leading the Bolts to their eighth win in 10 games while joining leader TNT Tropang Giga as the only teams with twice-to-beat edge in the quarterfinals.
Meralco, however, will still play Barangay Ginebra San Miguel in the final day of eliminations today, but the result will hardly matter as it is already locked in the second spot.
Magnolia will take the third spot, giving it the right to face the sixth-seeded team in a sudden-death battle for a chance to advance to the best-of-five semifinals.
NLEX, for its part, closed its elimination round campaign with a 5-6 slate, but is already assured of a quarterfinal berth and could still fall to No. 7 in which it would have a twice-to-beat disadvantage against the No. 2 seed — Meralco.
Maliksi fired 22 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the three-point area with four rebounds while Almazan registered another double-double performance with 13 points and 11 rebounds.
Pasaol, the burly rookie from University of the East, was also at his best, finishing with a career-high 17 points in less than 20 minutes of action while Mac Belo chipped in 16 for Meralco, which survived the explosion of Oftana.
Oftana erupted for a career-high 34 points on a red-hot 8-for-11 shooting from the rainbow territory to emerge as the rookie with the most number of three-pointers in a single game in league history.
Allan Caidic used to hold that distinction when he fired seven treys in a 135-134 overtime loss in Game 2 of the Open Conference finals between Great Taste and Tanduay in 1987.
Despite an underwhelming display in the endgame, Meralco coach Norman Black was still delighted at how his boys stayed composed to claim the first playoff bonus in franchise history.
“At this point of the season, every win counts. Now, we can look forward to our next game against Ginebra and look forward to the playoffs,” Black, whose wards were limited to only 15 points in the final quarter, said.
“We’re happy to get the twice-to-beat, it’s the first time in the history of the Meralco franchise to be able to do it.”
Leading by as much as 19 points, 101-82, with seven minutes to go, the Bolts were caught flat-footed as JR Quiñahan and Don Trollano unleashed 10 straight markers that cut the lead to within 10, 92-101, barely two minutes left.
Oftana took matters into his own hands and fired three straight triples as NLEX inched closer to within two, 101-103, with only two seconds left.
The Road Warriors, however, failed to complete their comeback after Almazan hit a final kick to seal the victory.
Black said they are looking for a big win against Ginebra in a bid to end their elimination campaign on a high-note.
“First thing tomorrow is to play and win the game against Ginebra tomorrow, it’s gonna be very important so we can get some momentum for the playoffs,” Black said.
“Definitely, it will be more mental than physical. It will probably be more on the coaches to get their jobs done.”
MERALCO (104) — Maliksi 22, Pasaol 17, Belo 16, Almazan 13, Caram 10, Quinto 8, Pinto 8, Jackson 2, Hodge 2, Baclao 2, Jamito 2, Newsome 0.
NLEX (101) — Oftana 34, Soyud 14, Quiñahan 13, Trollano 9, Ighalo 8, McAloney 7, Paniamogan 6, Semerad 3, Cruz 3, Miranda 2, Alas 2.
Quarters: 30-20, 65-54, 89-74, 104-101.