An early exit at the hands of TNT in the 2019 PBA Governors' Cup quarterfinals has left a dethroned Magnolia team with more questions than answers.
Merely three minutes away from extending a first-round matchup with the twice-to-beat KaTropa after leading by as many as 18, the Hotshots went on to blow a late nine-point lead in a colossal 98-97 meltdown that ended all hopes of the team being able to defend its title in the season-ending conference.
"Of course, it's frustrating. I go out there and play my heart out. And the same things ... continue happening to me," a dejected Romeo Travis exclaimed after the game. "Frustrating is me not being able to curse right now. I'm beyond frustrated. I'm very, very, very, very upset and that's me saying it the best way I can."
Endgame collapses have been a recurring trend for Magnolia, which couldn't seem to find that finishing blow in most of their games in what has been a sub-optimal conference. It hasn't even been that long since the team's last breakdown: prior to Monday, the Hotshots also gave up a double-digit lead -- 26 points, to be exact -- against NLEX in a last-second loss last Nov. 10 in the elimination round.
"I told my players that this conference was difficult. We had difficulty getting all the breaks, from our first game until now. And we had hard times finishing games. There were games which we controlled for 46 minutes only to lose them in the last two. So many games like that," coach Chito Victolero said in Filipino.
"Every time we lose in bad games and we're winning, it's very similar with the turnovers and no defense. You could look at it the same way. We take quick shots and we turn the ball over and we lose games," Travis observed. "It's just ironic that it happens the same way often."
The import could have helped Magnolia avert a disastrous ending in the final 15 seconds, where he had two chances at the line to give the Hotshots a more comfortable cushion. Travis failed to sink the second one, though, and this led to Bobby Ray Parks giving TNT a one-point lead by hitting both of his foul shots with six ticks to go.
Travis took responsibility for the miss, but reiterated that Magnolia shouldn't have had to rely on late shots at the line if it took care of business immediately.
"It's gonna be hard for me to sleep tonight because of that free throw. But we should've never been in that position," he lamented. "It's been ongoing all year: We get a big lead and mysteriously, it disappears ... I don't know how it happens but it always seems to happen to us very frequently. I don't know the right words, so I'ma just leave it alone."
Victolero said closing out games better will be a point of emphasis when his squad gets back on the drawing board after the break.
"We're intact, but we probably need to add more desire in finishing the game," explained Victolero. "We had very good game plans, we executed the game plans. I told my players it all boils down to grinding in the game, which was true. But we need to control ... the little things. How to get the rebounds, how to execute on the pick-and-rolls, how to play pick-and-roll defense. The little things end up being huge."
In the meantime, Magnolia and Travis will be taking divergent paths. With the 2020 season not set to start until March 1, Victolero said the team will jump on the opportunity to refresh themselves before getting back to the grind.
"I think we need to come back strong next season, and I told my players they need to rest. Even the coaching staff, they need to rest their minds and bodies. We need to come back strong when we come back because all the teams have improved. And we need to improve individually and also as a team," he said.
Travis said he'll go back home and spend a lot of time with his family first.
"I'm going home and I'm [gonna be] a day, taking my kids to school. I can't wait to just be able to be along with my kids and my wife and just [be a] stay-at-home dad," he chuckled. "It's going to be nice."
Asked whether or not he'd be open to making a comeback next season, Travis bluntly said he hasn't looked that far yet. Aside from what he could consider a dismal stint, the 34-year-old said he'll also see how his age and injuries -- the most recent of which was a right ankle injury that sidelined him for a game last October -- will affect his effectiveness moving forward.
"I'm getting old. This has been very difficult for me. The injury, just being in this situation where we keep giving up the games in the same kind of the way? It's very hard for me to continue to play like this," he said.
But even after Travis accounts accounts for those factors, he says it still depends on whether or not the Hotshots will bring him back for another tour of duty. Victolero was non-committal, but said that Travis will always be on their shortlist of names.
"We're very thankful to Romeo. We told him back in the locker room that his leadership and his chemistry with the team were huge," the coach said. "We wished him good luck on his journey to other leagues and we told him we hope he becomes more successful."
"Of course we will try to think of the options. It's still a bit far out, but maybe we all need to rest and do some thinking. It's not an option that's we're gonna let slip out of our hands," he added.