TNT will head to the PBA Philippine Cup Finals for the first time in seven years after rolling to a 91-81 wire-to-wire over Phoenix Super LPG in a do-or-die Game 5 Friday at the AUF Sports Arena and Cultural Center.
Some suffocating defense and timely outbursts from main guns Bobby Ray Parks, Jayson Castro and Roger Pogoy did the trick for the Tropang Giga franchise, who will be playing for a title in the All-Filipino Conference for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
Parks shone once more and came alive in the second half, where he scored 22 of his 26 points to anchor the TNT offense. He shot 9-for-18 from the field to lead all scorers and also added 10 rebounds, six assists and a steal for good measure.
Simon Enciso scored eight of his 12 in a hot first quarter start, while Jayson Castro, Roger Pogoy and Jay Washington all finished with 11 each for TNT.
"We just got to take pride in the moment, take advantage of the moment. It is who you play for, and this is my family right here," expressed Parks, who spoke during the walk-off interview with the entire squad right behind him.
Game 1 of the All-Filipino finals is on Sunday, Nov. 29. TNT will face the Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings, who slipped past the Meralco Bolts in teh second game thanks to a last-second triple from Scottie Thompson.
TNT held a usually robust Phoenix offense to just 36.4 percent from the field and a ghastly 8-for-41 mark (19.5) percent from downtown and forced the Fuel Masters to commit more turnovers (18) than assists (17) in the sudden-death game.
But that defensive intensity didn't immediately translate for the Tropang Giga, who also went through their own struggles on offense in the first two quarters before finally pulling away in the second half.
Enciso and Jay Washington kept a paltry TNT attack afloat by scoring eight apiece in the first half before the Tropang Giga finally got something good from their aces after the halftime break.
In the third quarter, it was all Parks and Castro as the duo combined to score 15 of the team's 22 points during that span. That was some much-needed production for a Tropang Giga squad that turned a slim three-point lead early in the quarter to a 62-53 cushion entering the payoff period.
TNT proceeded to gain more separation in the fourth, where Parks scored 15 of the team's final 29 points. Pogoy also threw in seven during that frame, including a triple that even pushed his team to the biggest lead of the game at 17, 75-58, at the 7:09 mark.
"It just speaks to how bad we wanted it. We're here now. We sacrificed two months. We sacrificed not being with our families," said Parks. "This is really dedicated to them and we played our best. It is not easy being away from them, it is not easy being in a bubble. We just wanted to make it into the finals and the job is not finished yet."
The TNT franchise last appeared in the championship stage of this conference in the 2012-13 edition, when the team, bannering a core of Jimmy Alapag, Ranidel de Ocampo, Larry Fonacier and a young Castro, swept Rain or Shine to complete a Philippine Cup three-peat -- a first in league history at the time.
"It's good to be back in the finals," said head coach Bong Ravena. "I must commend the players, especially Ray and all the veterans. They really stepped up in tonight's game."
The Fuel Masters, on the other hand, will exit the bubble with their heads held high after a tremendous showing that saw them nearly make the finals for the first time in their young franchise history.
Calvin Abueva led Phoenix Super LPG with 23 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, but he got little help elsewhere as Matthew Wright (13 points on 5-for-19 shooting) and Jason Perkins (11 points, 11 rebounds) had quiet outings.
Ravena heaped praise on the Fuel Masters and said TNT basically sharpened itself by going up against an elite Phoenix squad this series.
"I've said it before: this team isn't a pushover anymore," he commented. "They're well-organized, they're complete. You can't leave anyone open. Anybody can shoot and they've got a good system. You better watch them next season."
TNT will now set its sights to what will definitely be a difficult Finals matchup against the Gin Kings.
"The good thing about this is we still have time to prepare. Tonight, we can watch the game between both teams," Ravena said. "Facing Phoenix was really a blessing in disguise because they helped us a lot, they made us better. Maybe we'll be more ready in the Finals because we really had a hard time against Phoenix. We'll see."
TNT 91 - Parks 26, Enciso 12, Washington 11, Pogoy 11, Castro 11, Erram 9, Carey 4, Montalbo 3, Rosario 4, Reyes 0.
Phoenix 81 - Abueva 23, Wright 13, Perkins 11, Chua 9, Jazul 8, Heruela 7, Rios 6, Mallari 4, Garcia 0.
Quarters: 25-20; 40-34; 62-53; 91-81.
- TNT's work on the glass (51-48 rebounding advantage, including 15 offensive rebounds) led to a 16-8 edge on second chance points against Phoenix. The Tropang Giga also ran the break more (11-4).
- Poy Erram (nine points, six rebounds) and Troy Rosario (four and seven boards) fared better this time around, though TNT still opted to primarily play a four-guard lineup in stretches when it pulled away from the Fuel Masters.