Despite the situation facing the San Miguel Beermen, even though they trailed by as many as 23 points in the game, and 14 points down at the start of the fourth quarter, they could still see the finish. They knew that they had put on their jerseys for the last time this conference that evening, and they had kissed their loved ones and wished for luck one final time.
They were determined to do everything possible to end it in Game 5.
"Our character has been developed because of all the experiences we've had together," San Miguel head coach Leo Austria said. "We have a winning attitude, and now the heart of a champion. We refuse to be beaten just like that."
The Beermen were cognizant that heading into the game, the Magnolia Hotshots were beginning to figure out how to attack San Miguel. Their offense was starting to find the gaps, and their shooters were hitting triples with confidence. Teams don't normally erect 20-point leads against San Miguel. That's a product of excellent coaching and execution by the opponents.
San Miguel slept through the first half of basketball. And they paid the price.
"We knew that we didn't have a good first half, we allowed them to get easy shots, and it wasn't us," San Miguel forward Marcio Lassiter said. "it wasn't the Beermen brand we usually play."
But as great teams do, they turn it around at the half. Inside the locker room, words were said, challenges were thrown down. According to Chris Ross, it was definitely not for the faint of heart.
"I'm glad that no one was in here, it was just the players," Ross confided after the game. "Some of the bosses came in towards the end but definitely not for TV, for kids or whatever. There was a lot of..."
"Not for TV," Ross says sheepishly.
But regardless how or what was said, it lit a fire under the Beermen's belly. Maybe some squads wouldn't appreciate being called out or challenged liked that, but San Miguel is different. This is a squad that has been through so many wars together. They've overcome so many obstacles as a unit. They know that they can get the job done. They know that there will always be challenges facing them. It's simply a matter of responding to adversity.
"We told ourselves at halftime we had to step it up as individuals and as a team," Lassiter shared. We knew what we needed to do - we had to go out there and play. We weren't playing hard and that's what we did. Everyone came and stepped up, and we gave our heart, left it on the court, went all out."
It started slowly, as San Miguel finally outscored the Hotshots in a quarter, 23-21. They finally got some stops, and prevented Magnolia from toying with their defense. San Miguel also attacked relentlessly, either by establishing the offense through Fajardo, or penetrating and forcing the officials to make a decision on their tough drives.
They went for the kill in the fourth quarter. The key for the Beermen was the sacrifice that they made together as a unit, playing a trapping and intense full court defense, despite the starters already playing 30 minutes at that point. When they saw the double-digit deficit trimmed down to single digits, they knew that a comeback was still possible.
"We knew we had the fight of the champion," Lassiter said confidently. "We knew that in those desperate moments, we kind of always step up. Because we've been in these situations, we've been in these types of wars."
The brilliance of June Mar still kept them in the game, but what allowed San Miguel to send it into overtime was the contributions from everyone on the floor. Arwind Santos's incredible triple off a broken play was a shot that everyone inside the Mall of Asia knew he was going to take, and most especially make.
"I was just patient, looking for a gap in the defense even though I knew it was hard," Arwind Santos said. "I just worked at it because I knew that if I gave up or I accepted that I wasn't going to score or help my team, it's over. It would mean I gave up against their defense."
Santos's triple with 17 seconds left to tie the game at 86-all is just another shot in his growing resume of big-time baskets. Despite the circumstance, despite Rome Dela Rosa being draped all over him every minute he was on the floor, like the Beermen squad as a unit, he just found a way.
"The hand of God made that shot," Santos said. "I was so tired. So very tired. But I kept telling myself- 'no, I don't want to lose. We want to win.' We wanted this championship. We just wanted to stay close to them. We knew that if we stayed close to them, we would always have a chance."
Santos made the tying triple, but the Hotshots had one last chance to win the game and send it to a Game 6. But the Beermen refused to give in. They fought off the mental and physical fatigue, and almost ended the series in a wild finish that saw Marcio Lassiter force a steal, run the length of the floor to the San Miguel side and almost win it with a three-point attempt at the buzzer.
"I looked at the clock when I tipped the ball out," Lassiter said of the final possession in the 4th quarter. "I don't know how the ball didn't just go out of bounds. It just stayed in one line. It could've easily just rolled out of bounds. When I got it, I just told myself I gotta get the shot off. No matter how it was, I knew i had to get the shot off."
The shot almost went in, and if it had done so, then it would've ranked up there as one of the greatest in PBA history. But it wasn't meant to be. But San Miguel did the next best thing: they forced overtime. And when that happened, the game suddenly shifted. All the advantages that the Hotshots had - the 23 point lead, momentum and confidence - immediately was zapped away.
Like the three squads during the last three years of San Miguel's reign in the Philippine Cup, the Hotshots were at the Beermen's mercy. Because despite being sent into a second overtime, and still being down at certain points in the extra periods, the match turned into a different kind of challenge, one that the Beermen have proven themselves at time and time again.
"Obviously every game in a series counts, and every possession counts, but when you go into overtimes, every possession counts," Lassiter said. "You have to be mentally sharp, but definitely physically you're at a disadvantage because everyone's tired. It's the poise, you need the poise to make the right plays and make the right stops."
"I think just we were locked in," Lassiter said. "We were all locked in."
The result was a 108-99 victory for the Beermen. When asked what it meant to the team to achieve this fourth straight Philippine Cup title, Lassiter kept it simple: "History."
"We just wanted to give our best, and that was our best in the second half," June Mar Fajardo said. "We were just thankful that we were able to get this."
The beer-soaked bath inside the locker room of San Miguel had finally ended. Most of the players had packed up, joined their loved ones and were eager for the festivities that was sure to follow. One of the last players to leave was Fajardo, still patiently doing interviews with media personalities. After a few more questions, he finally got his 6'10" frame seated, and found a box score of Game 5. He perused through it, and noticed a gaudy stat line that stood out.
"Chris Ross only needed two more steals for a quadruple-double," Fajardo said in his surprised baritone voice. "And we only had 24 assists."
Despite his tremendous 42 points and 20 rebounds in 54 minutes of play, June Mar Fajardo still played the role of teammate happy for his team's success. Despite being the center of the team's solar system, and the absolute game changing nature of his play, he was still more concerned about those around him.
That has been the secret to San Miguel's success throughout the past four years. Despite having Fajardo rack up four straight MVPs, it has never been about him. Despite Santos's brilliance and being a former MVP in his own right, it's never been about him.
It's never been about any one guy during San Miguel's reign. Yes, Fajardo is the man. But he's never looked at himself as the man, despite what his accolades say.
"As I've said before, we all benefit from his greatness," Ross said matter of factly. "He's in the conversation of probably being the best player ever to play in the PBA and we're reaping the benefits from it. What makes it work is he's such a selfless guy."
"He wants to share the limelight and he wants to pass the ball," Ross continued. "He doesn't want it to be all about him. He wants it to be a team and he really wants to be treated like everybody else. I'm glad that he's a leader of our team and I'm glad that I'm able to play with someone as humble and as great as him."
"For any player, there's only one thing you want to achieve, a championship," Santos said. "Not just an award. Despite all of our championships, we're still hungry and humble. We still trust each other, and refuse to let all of this get to our head."
The beer may have stopped flowing inside San Miguel's, but the reason for the celebration will stand the test of time. Because of the Beermen's uncanny ability to stick together, and to avoid the disease of more, they've made history. They are a rare bunch of competitors- those with otherworldly talents that are mortal. But as the past four years have shown- put them together, and they become immortal.
"I love the big lights," Ross said with a smile. "I love when you're playing for something and today we're playing for something that no other PBA team has ever done. So luckily my teammates made enough plays, we put ourselves hopefully in the conversation of being one of the better teams in PBA history."