Two down, one to go.
Given a reprieve in Game 5 through Jimmy Alapag's clutch triple, the Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters again turned to their captain in the second of their three must-win games, and he came through with his best game of the series to lead the Tropa to a 111-108 win over the Petron Blaze Boosters that leveled their best-of-seven series at three wins apiece.
Trailing 3-1 in the series at one point, the Tropa have a chance to become only the third team in PBA history to overhaul such a series deficit with a win on Wednesday. If they pull it off, they can thank Alapag for rescuing them in Game 5 and simply willing them to victory in Game 6. The Mighty Mouse came through with a conference-high 29 points and added 7 rebounds and 10 assists in a solid all-around game, and he personally finished off the Blaze Boosters by hitting four free throws in the last 33 seconds that gave the Tropa a 110-104 lead.
By winning the last two games, conventional wisdom would dictate that TNT now has the momentum. But Alapag would hear none of it.
"To be honest, it's fifty-fifty," he declared. "We both have one chance to be back in the finals. All the X's and O's, throw that out of the window now. It's gonna be who wants it the most."
Petron again blew a chance to finish off TNT, and the loss marked the first time the franchise has been extended to a seventh game after grabbing a 3-1 series lead. They had their chances, though, but couldn't come up with the big shots in crunch time. In particular, the usually clutch Alex Cabagnot came up empty in the last three minutes, missing two consecutive three-point attempts and an open jumper, and throwing a bad pass that was easily picked off by Rich Alvarez.
A conversion on either one of those three-point attempts would have given Petron a one-point lead. Instead, Ali Peek's tip-in with 1:51 left extended TNT's lead to four at 103-99. On Petron's next trip down, Cabagnot flubbed an open jumper from mid-range, but TNT couldn't capitalize after Ranidel De Ocampo missed a runner and then foolishly fouled Danny Ildefonso, who was a step ahead of him on the way to the basket. Ildefonso completed a three-point play to cut the lead down to one, 103-102, time down to 1:18.
Chot Reyes sued for time and came up with a brilliant play that caught Petron off-guard. Larry Fonacier ran from the baseline up towards the left quarter court, losing Chris Lutz off a double screen, and buried a triple that restored TNT's four-point advantage. It was vintage Reyes: going for the three when your opponent least expects it.
In the next play, Cabagnot tried a drive-and-draw, but his pass to Lutz in the corner was intercepted by Alvarez, who was in the game precisely for defensive purposes. Luckily for Petron, Peek also threw the ball away, leading to an Ildefonso basket that sliced the lead to just two.
But just four seconds later, the Blaze Boosters fouled Alapag, who had yet to miss a free throw all game long at that point. He still hadn't after his latest trip to the stripe, his two free throws making it 108-104 with 33.6 ticks left. Lutz, sufficiently harassed by the long-armed Alvarez, dribbled the ball off his foot and out of bounds, and with it went Petron's last real chance of salvaging a win. Alapag added two more free throws with 17.2 seconds to go to virtually seal it.
"Jimmy is a big-game player," Reyes said. "He came out very aggressive, looking to score from the start. We said there's another point guard in this series, and that's Jimmy Alapag. Tonight he played great. Wow, 29 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists. That's the kind of effort we need on Wednesday again."
"Medyo frustrated ang team morale pero it's our fault," Ato Agustin said. "I think we lost our focus especially on defense. It's all about mental toughness. On our part if they score 100+ we're gonna lose the game.
"I think TNT deserves to win. They shot almost 51%, parang nagpaligsahan sa shooting. Mas maganda opensa nila kaya they deserve it."
"We didn't play defense," Cabagnot said. "That's not our game plan. We just have to regroup on Wednesday. God-willing, pumasok sa Wednesday mga shots ko. I hope to shoot a high percentage on Wednesday."
Cabagnot actually had 18 points, but shot only 3-for-11 from the field, the bulk of his points coming from free throws. He stressed, though, that a poor shooting night isn't an excuse to lose the game. In the end, they simply let TNT score almost at will.
"We need to make stops," he said. "If we made one or two stops or not foul here and there. Shooting is not the problem, defense is."
Reyes also noted their high-octane offense played a big part in their win.
"I think this is the first time in the series that we were able to go over 100 points," he said. "I think that was important, that our offense gets on track. I hope we continue to do that."
The Tropa shot over 57% on two-point shots, and nearly 51% overall. Additionally, TNT's deep bench was on full display in this game. Even with Kelly Williams seeing only four minutes of action due to a hamstring injury, Reyes shuffled his other players constantly, putting fresh legs on the court to keep TNT's running game going. He used 11 players, and 10 of them played at least 10 minutes. In contrast Agustin rotated only eight men, with Ildefonso, Denok Miranda and Lordy Tugade the only players coming off the bench.
"There's still one more game that has to be played," Reyes said, "and our objective now is to make sure we're ready for Wednesday. We're raring to go, and we hope we save our best for last."