The ending felt so abrupt for the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok. One minute they were the hottest team in the league with six straight wins and looking great to make it seven, the next minute they found themselves shaking hands with Phoenix Super LPG after they got booted out of the 2020 PBA Philippine Cup due to a Matthew Wright running triple.
The Hotshots were finalists in the last two editions of the all-Filipino conference. They were a basket short of claiming the title last year against the San Miguel Beermen, which made them one of the favorites heading into the PBA Bubble.
However, the long layoff leveled everything off. There were no more favorites, no more underdogs. The teams that got into condition and gained their chemistry first would have the best chance of moving forward in the tournament.
Unfortunately for Magnolia, they came into the bubble already carrying a loss in the opener against the Beermen. They scored an early win against NLEX but suffered consecutive losses to Alaska, Meralco, and Phoenix, games that they could have won if a couple of breaks went their way.
Their six-game winning streak was the best run of the conference but their stint came to a screeching halt with an 89-88 loss to the Fuel Masters, Saturday night.
They started packing upon getting back to the Quest Hotel and they left Sunday afternoon. Still, the team was all smiles upon their exit. Though they may have wanted to stay a little longer, they choose to see the any positives of their stint here.
"Our team was one of the happiest inside the bubble. I'm sure you noticed that we were always happy even during the games," said Magnolia head coach Chito Victolero in Filipino. "There was a lot of pressure. Many of us were not in condition but, in the middle of the tournament, we got our chemistry back and it was all because we started having fun again as a team."
Victolero could only imagine what could have happened if some of their key players did not suffer injuries with Ian Sangalang and Rome Dela Rosa missing a game and Kyle Pascual not even seeing action inside the Angeles University Foundation Arena.
"Our key players had some injuries and those injuries happened when we were really struggling. We suffered a couple of sorry losses and if we won even one of those games it would have been so different for us. But I'm still happy with what we achieved."
When Victolero talks about achievement, he's not pertaining to the wins and losses. A quarterfinal exit will never be enough for a storied franchise like Magnolia. Instead, he's talking about the improvements inside the bubble that will make permanent changes to their team moving forward.
"More than the results of the games, I think what we can take away from this experience was the bonding of the team," said Victolero. "We have a few new players but now I can say we've really become a team."
Moving forward, Victolero knows that he'll still bank on his usual suspects. Paul Lee was amazing all conference long and will only get better with his newfound lean physique. He'll still be surrounded by his fellow point guards in Mark Barroca, Jio Jalalon, Chris Banchero, and Justin Melton with Sangalang being their primary option in the shaded area.
Victolero saw great potential in rookie Aris Dionisio who showed glimpses of brilliance in his debut conference. The Hotshots will also be looking forward to next year's PBA Rookie Draft, which could be very interesting because of the expected changes to the requirements. Another thing Magnolia can look forward to is the return of veteran Marc Pingris whose leadership and fighting spirit was certainly missed in their bench.
"Right now, I'm not thinking too far ahead," Victolero said. "I'm excited to go home and see my family and I'm excited to eat the food they prepared for me. We don't know when the next conference will be and when we'll be allowed to practice as a team again what we learned from this experience is that we have to work early."