FEW now doubt NLEX’s character and capability to go all the way in the PBA Governors Cup.
For the second time in just over a month, the Road Warriors pulled off the improbable, coming back from 26 points down to beat the Magnolia Hotshots 86-85 last Sunday at the Ynares Center in Antipolo City.
The victory, its fifth straight and eighth in nine games, pushed NLEX firmly on top of the heap and assured it of a twice-to-beat bonus in the eight-team quarterfinals.
More important for coach Yeng Guiao was the way his charges showed their grit anew, much like what they did in coming back from 28 points down to nip Ginebra 113-111 in overtime last Oct. 5 in Dubai.
“I almost gave up on it actually in the first half. I was telling my assistant coaches maybe even if we lose it’s going to be good for us because we need to feel that we’re still not that good,” revealed Guiao, whose charge trailed by as much as 21-47.
“We’re still not that good so maybe a loss will be good for us. That was what we’re talking about at halftime. But the boys didn’t want to lose,” added Guiao. “Credit goes to them.”
Typifying NLEX’s determination the most was Jericho Cruz, whose triple proved to be the dagger against the Kings in the stretch.
After Kiefer Ravena’s missed free throw, Cruz dashed in from outside the arc, grabbed the ball off Poy Erram’s tip and in one fluid motion put up a short stab that went in with exactly a second left to give NLEX the one-point lead that stood when Paul Lee missed a desperate heave from way out.
“Inisip ko lang ‘yung nangyari nu’ng rookie year ko. Nagawa ko rin kasi ‘yun sa Alaska game,” related Cruz, referring to his rookie stint in the 2014 Philippine Cup when he followed up a Jeff Chan miss from the stripe to prop Rain or Shine to a 98-95 win over the Aces.
“So inisip ko, baka maulit-ulit if ever mag-miss si Kiefer,” added Cruz. “So ‘yun na nga ginawa ko, inisip ko na 100 percent na papasok ako para sa rebound. Luckily, pumunta sa side ko ‘tsaka naka-tsamba.“
That last-second game-winner was a fitting cap to a game in which NLEX import Manny Harris and Magnolia counterpart Romeo Travis had to yield most of the limelight to their local teammates.
Harris, averaging a conference-best 38 points before the game only to go scoreless in the opening quarter and was even benched the entire second period, scraped for each of his 22 points while Travis also bled for 13 points, nine below his average, to cede team scoring honors to Lee who had 24.
“Magnolia played really good defense on us in general, especially on Manny,” noted Guiao.
“I guess it’s just his competitive spirit and the rest of the guys. Manny Harris just showed what kind of player he is.”
The kind words were in stark contrast to the reportedly expletive-laden ones Guiao unleashed on his players during halftime when they stared at a 29-51 deficit.
“Galit na galit nga si coach,” related Cruz. “Sabi nga sa amin, wala na kaming mga utak.
Sabi din ni coach nu’ng halftime sa mga coaching staff, maybe it’s time na matalo kami. Parang it’s a wake-up call for us.
“Pero us as a player, we didn’t wanna give up, we played our hearts out. Sabi nga ni coach, special group ‘tong grupo namin ngayon.”
NLEX next takes on NorthPort tomorrow with the Road Warriors hoping for another win that would move them closer to the top seeding in the quarterfinals and a duel with the eighth-ranked squad.
There’s just enough time to savor the Magnolia game, which, to Guiao’s point of view, is one for the ages.
“It is really a fantastic game,” said Guiao. “I’ve been coaching for so long but these games are rare. It’s a treat for the fans. Kahit anong side kinampihan mo, I’m sure nabuhay ang dugo mo, you felt excitement, I’m sure you appreciate the effort ng lahat ng naglaro.”