For the first time in five seasons, a new champion will be crowned in the PBA Philippine Cup.
Meralco put an unceremonious end to San Miguel's dynasty in the All-Filipino Conference by blasting the Beermen 90-68 in the knockout match for the last semifinals berth Sunday at the Angeles University Foundation Sports Arena and Cultural Center.
Two days after bucking a twice-to-beat disadvantage to force a winner-take-all game against the defending five-time champions, the Bolts decisively dictated the tempo on both ends of the floor from start to finish in order to advance and unseat an SMB team that had monopolized the throne with its unprecedented dominance since the 2014-15 season.
But as momentous as this win was, booting out the Beermen isn't really the crux of the matter for a Meralco team that will play in the semifinals of the All-Filipino wars for the first time in franchise history.
"To be quite honest with you, I was so focused on Meralco and the company and trying to reward them for their patience and sticking with us and supporting us," said head coach Norman Black, who started his playing and coaching career in the PBA against the same San Miguel franchise he showed the door on Sunday.
"Obviously, beating them is great. It feels great, not because they're San Miguel but because we have a chance to move on to the semifinals," he continued. "Breaking their five-year championship streak, well that says they're also great, because they've won five straight championships. We're just happy to be here, and it just happened to be the San Miguel team that we had to go through."
Like how most of their wins have usually gone in the past, it took a total team effort on both ends of the floor for a well-balanced Meralco team in order to secure passage into the next round against the reigning titlists.
Cliff Hodge scored 14 points and grabbed six boards in 35 minutes for the Bolts, while Baser Amer also collected 14 while adding seven rebounds and three assists to his line. Veteran Reynel Hugnatan tallied 12 and eight boards, while Allein Maliksi came up huge off the bench with 11.
Defense dictated Meralco's play on both ends of the floor in the winner-take-all duel, Black admitted, as the Bolts sought to take away post-up opportunities from San Miguel early on.
In the end, SMB shot just 31.6 from the floor against Meralco and only had 30 points on 37.5 percent shooting in the paint. The Beermen also made just 9-for-32 threes.
"Tonight was really a focus on defense. We knew what we wanted to do defensively," Black explained. "We knew that they were a team that posted up the majority of the time, so we tried to devise schemes to try to slow down their post-ups of Mo Tautuaa and also their guards. It worked very, very well because the players really executed the game plan, so all hats off to them, all the credit goes to the players."
Meralco used that defensive intensity to jump to a 16-6 lead late in the first quarter before putting San Miguel in a world of trouble in the second. An in-rhythm offense by the Bolts piled it on their counterparts during that frame and seized their first 20-point lead of the game after a Maliksi triple put them ahead 40-18 with 5:28 on the clock.
Desperate to keep their grasp on the title, the Beermen leaned on Marcio Lassiter to try to get back into the game.
Lassiter fired three triples in a personal 11-0 run after that Maliksi triple to kickstart SMB's offense, and he continued his assault after the halftime break by sinking two more from long range to cut the Bolts' lead to just six, 43-37.
Meralco, however, was just too good on both offense and defense and snuffed out any hopes of a Beermen comeback right then and there.
A 16-0 explosion sparked by Hodge and Chris Newsome did just the trick for Meralco, which gained a 26-point separation, 69-43, just before the third frame ended. The Bolts went 14-for-19 from the field during that span and hit 3-for-4 threes to outscore San Miguel 32-19.
A strong Aaron Black finish at the rim would later push the lead to 28, 80-52, early in the fourth quarter, where the Bolts extinguished every attempt made by the Beermen to pull close.
"It's been a real journey this conference," said Black. "Now I'm going to have to regroup them because the job is not finished. It's only the semifinals. Now we have to put our sights on the finals."
Getting in the way of a shot at a finals run is a familiar nemesis in coach Tim Cone and Barangay Ginebra, who actually just beat the Bolts in the 2019-20 Governors' Cup finals last January.
"Well they've been getting the better end of the matchup, by the way, but hopefully we can change that in this conference," Black admitted.
"The idea is to set the goal to make it to the championship, and of course for us to be able to do that, we have to go through Ginebra to get it done. We know they're going to be the favorites. I mean, they have a very, very good team, a lot of quality players on their team, but we'll be out there fighting."
Ginebra has beaten Meralco three times in the finals, though none of them have come outside import-laden conferences.
With the Bolts now carrying a big weapon in the paint in the form of a relatively healthier Raymond Almazan this time around, Black thinks his team has a shot at turning the tables this time around.
"You know, the one thing we've never really had against them is we've never really had much size, and Raymond gives us a little bit of size because one of the biggest problems we always have with Ginebra is before, Greg Slaughter, and of course Japeth Aguilar," said Black.
"I'm gonna have to sit down and start to study Ginebra. I haven't really studied them. They beat us pretty, pretty soundly earlier in the conference. I think we're a much better team now than we were earlier in the conference, so hopefully we can give them a run for their money."
Meralco will take on the Gin Kings in Game 1 of the best-of-five semis series on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 6:30 p.m.
San Miguel, on the other hand, will head into the offseason looking to regroup after exiting the Philippine Cup playoffs early for the first time since the 2013 season.
Tautuaa had 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Beermen. Lassiter put up 20 on six threes, but he shot just 7-for-25 from the field against the Bolts. Arwind Santos finished with 10 and nine boards.
Meralco 90 - Hodge 14, Amer 14, Hugnatan 12, Maliksi 11, Quinto 9, Newsome 9, Black 9, Almazan 8, Jamito 2, Jackson 2, Caram 0 , Salva 0, Pinto 0, Jose 0.
San Miguel 68 - Lassiter 20, Tautuaa 13, Santos 10, Ross 7, Cabagnot 6, Zamar 3, Alolino 2, Pessumal 0, Comboy 0, Gamalinda 0, Escoto 0.
Quarters: 21-11, 43-31, 75-50, 90-68.
- Santos has now 1,000 career three-pointers in his career, tying Al Solis at seventh in the all-time list. He is the only big man to make that list, per PBA statistician Fidel Mangonon III.
- Meralco shot 38.5 percent from downtown (10-for-26) against SMB.
- Meralco vs San Miguel on Wednesday, Nov. 18, at 6:30 p.m.