The B-Meg Llamados, a team given up for dead after losing by 22 points in Game 1, fittingly completed their resurrection on Easter Sunday, outplaying the Meralco Bolts 86-76 to win their best-of-three quarterfinal series and advance to the semifinals of the PBA Commissioner's Cup.
Denzel Bowles, at 22 the youngest among the imports seeing action in this conference, played with the poise of a veteran, outplaying the more experienced Earl Barron during a crucial stretch in the fourth period when the Llamados held the Bolts without a field goal for over 10 minutes and broke open a close game.
With the Llamados trailing 72-73 with less than six minutes left, Bowles rattled off 10 straight points against a solitary free throw by Sol Mercado to push B-Meg ahead 82-74 with only two minutes left. It was part of a murderous 21-3 B-Meg blast that turned a 65-71 deficit into an 86-74 lead, a period during which the Bolts were held without a single field goal and made only three free throws.
Bowles was everywhere in the fourth. He started the run with split at the free throw line. He gave the Llamados the lead for good with a three-point play off an assist from Jonas Villanueva. Then he rebounded a PJ Simon miss and scored on a putback just as the last two minutes were being announced to make it a three-possession game at 82-74.
"I'm just glad," Bowles said. "I'm proud of my team. We got blown out in the first game, and we came back to win the last two."
But for B-Meg coach Tim Cone, it was Villanueva who spelled the difference during the breakaway.
"The only good thing I did tonight was put Jonas in the game in the fourth (period)," Cone said of his decision to put in the seldom-used point guard. "The deciding factor was putting Jonas in. He got us under tempo. He's been working hard in practice and he has always impressed me. PJ played well, Denzel and Ping (Marc Pingris) had huge rebounds. James was a consistent threat that they spent a lot of time guarding him. But Jonas was the big difference tonight."
Villanueva didn't attempt a shot in 13 minutes, but he changed the complexion of the game by pushing the tempo and playing good defense. "Jonas is the third point guard in our team right now," Cone noted. "Jonas is a stabilizer. He knows what he has to do inside."
The win by B-Meg set up a mouth-watering semifinal clash with Barangay Ginebra, and Cone is relishing the thought of going at it with the team that beat them in the playoff for the second semifinal berth.
"After we lost to Ginebra in the knockout (game), we wanted to play them again," Cone said. "This series toughened us up. It will make us tougher, sharper and better."
The two sister teams are arguably the two most popular in the league, but strangely enough, they haven't met in a playoff series since 1997, when they were known as the Gordon's Gin Boars and Purefoods Corned Beef Cowboys. Purefoods, then owned by the Ayalas, beat Gordon's Gin in six games in the '97 All-Filipino finals.
The Kings, though, will be going to battle minus their leader Mark Caguioa, who might be out for the whole best-of-five series after fracturing an orbital bone in that playoff game. The series starts on Wednesday.
"What happened to Caguioa is sad," Cone said. "I feel sorry for him and I hope he gets back. I'll be praying for him."
For Meralco, it was a disappointing end to a best-of-three series that got off to a promising start. After routing the Llamados 103-81 in Game 1, the Bolts lost leading local scorer Mark Cardona barely two minutes into Game 2 and ended up losing 95-85. Cardona managed not to get himself ejected this time, but a leg injury in the second period affected his mobility, and he scored only two points in 31 minutes. The Bolts also shot themselves in the foot by missing 14 free throws, including three during B-Meg's big run.
The other semifinal will pit defending champion Talk 'N Text against surprise semifinalist Barako Bull Energy, which routed Alaska 106-85 behind Gabe Freeman's 34 points and 19 rebounds. Their series fires off on Tuesday as the PBA will again alternate the two semifinal series.
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