In the midst of a five-game losing streak and with its back firmly against the wall on its biggest assignment of the conference yet, Alaska responded with grit and poise.
The end result? A "championship win" over Meralco in a knockout game that punched a hard-earned ticket to the 2019 PBA Commissioner's Cup quarterfinals.
"It's funny -- it's obviously not, I understand that," coach Alex Compton said. "But just the emotion of how we were struggling from [the last] five games and [from] things that we were trying to work through while getting healthy, it's just a nice feeling."
As expected in a win-or-go-home game against the Bolts, who likewise were fighting to keep their campaign alive, nothing came easy. Having built a 12-point lead at the half, the Aces watched in agony as Meralco surged back and nearly ended their conference in the final 20 seconds.
Thankfully for the Aces, Chris Banchero wouldn't allow it.
Alaska's final five points in regulation came courtesy of the star guard, who single-handedly erased a late Meralco lead to send the game into overtime. He had a bit of help there, of course, as the first three of those clutch points came from an offensive rebound by JVee Casio, who corralled Banchero's first 3-point attempt that missed the ring entirely.
That set the table for another Banchero stunner in the final seconds.
"The littlest guy hustled and got us the ball and got his teammate an open trey. Awesome. Us coaches love that," Compton said of Casio's hustle. "And then Chris hit a little Kobe Bryant -- I don't know who your favorite player is, Kobe, Michael [Jordan] or whoever -- but a little post-wiggle Kevin Garnett fadeaway to send it to overtime."
After the dust settled, Alaska couldn't be more pleased with how they ran away with the win: six players scored in double figures, led by Vic Manuel's conference-best 24 points. Three players, paced by Banchero's nine dimes, tallied more than five assists.
"I think offensively today, it was, 'We not me'," Compton said. "So many guys made plays and I'm proud of them. Just really proud of them."
"And personally, I wanna credit Meralco. This is a game where both teams could've rolled over and died. And I think we gave the PBA their first taste of playoff basketball. They left it all on the floor, we left it all on the floor, we just hit a couple more shots," he added. "I thought both teams played great, honored the game."
But as encouraging as this win was for Alaska, its inability to contain the opposing import still stood out. Meralco import Delroy Jones, whom Compton likened to Ginebra's Justin Brownlee due to his knack for getting a shot off anywhere, had a field day against the Aces, scoring 27 of his 34 points in that second half Bolts comeback.
Logically, TNT import and former Houston Rocket Terrence Jones will give them even bigger headaches.
"If you guys think we don't have a good matchup against Delroy James, do we have a good matchup for Terrence Jones? Does anybody in the league have a good matchup for Terrence Jones?" Compton asked rhetorically.
"I actually know some guys in the league that has a matchup for Terrence Jones. That league is the NBA. I don't think there's a good matchup for him out here. He's incredible."
James' lethal face-up game gave Alaska fits, but that's going to be only half the battle against Jones, whose playmaking has tapped into the KaTropa's ceiling on offense.
"He's gotten other guys tons of open shots. And so the good shooters around him, he's made better," observed Compton. "I mean what do you do? You help on Jones, recover to Pogoy. You help on Jones, recover to Castro. You help on Jones, recover to Trollano who's playing great. Help on Jones, recover to Semerad and it goes on."
The threat of a titan doesn't sound like it'll deter the Aces' top guns, though, as Banchero and Manuel believe that the door is open for an upset.
"At the end of the day, they're just another basketball team. They played really well this conference but I know we're not scared of them. They're really good and got a lot of good players, a lot of them are playing well. But it's anybody's night, we can play well when we got it going," Banchero said.
"We all know about his quality if play. He's really an incredible player who dominates the league. But we have a game plan against him. It we can limit him, we might have a chance to win against them on Sunday," Manuel said in Filipino.
As for Compton, he's just going to savor this one for a moment.
"I'm not gonna sleep tonight, and we're gonna meet and figure out what we can do about that," he said. "But between here and that locker room with a bunch of happy guys? I'm gonna be happy. And I'll talk to them happy for 30 seconds."