Ginebra forces rubber match; Aces through to semis

Barangay Ginebra lives to fight another day.

Facing elimination, the Gin Kings typified their ‘never-say-die’ spirit anew Friday night, hacking out a gutsy 79-77 victory over Rain or Shine to keep their PBA Philippine Cup hopes alive at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

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Athletic rookie Chris Ellis collected 18 points and 10 rebounds while reigning league MVP Mark Caguioa finished with 17 and chief playmaker LA Tenorio had 16, but it was Rudy Hatfield’s hustle plays in the payoff period that helped Ginebra stave off elimination.

The 6-foot-3 Hatfield proved he still has a lot of juice left in his 35-year old tank, racking up six of his 10 points in the fourth and hauling down nine boards before coming through with a decisive steal in the waning moments that all but enabled the Gin Kings to force a do-or-die Game 3 on Sunday also at the Big Dome.

“I want to thank God for this victory,” beamed Ginebra coach Siot Tanquingcen. “The key thing was just a personification of Rudy (Hatfield). Iyung heart, puso ba–diving for loose balls, du’n mo makikita sa mga players na kagaya niya. I’m very privileged to be working amongst players like that.”

Last season’s top rookie Paul Lee sparkled with 19 points but ace gunner Jeff Chan struggled anew with just 12 markers, missing nine of his 13 attempts, as the E-Painters failed to gain a fitting follow-up to their lopsided 82-65 win in the series opener last Wednesday.

Credit the Gin Kings’ shifting zone defensive pressure plus Hatfield’s tenacity on both ends.

Staring at a 33-41 deficit at the break, Ginebra started to get its game going behind Tenorio in the third canto, uncorking a 9-2 start before outscoring Rain or Shine in the period 24-14 to take a slim 57-55 lead.

While daring the E-Painters to shoot from the outside, the Gin Kings, notably Hatfield and energetic rookie Yousef Taha, wrought havoc in the lane, and a Billy Mamaril inside incursion pushed them ahead 75-67 with 4:33 left.

Rain or Shine, however, kept Ginebra within reach, with a Lee triple capping a 10-4 counterattack for a 77-79 count, time down to just 1:06.

After Tenorio muffed his two attempts, the Painters quickly pushed the leather but Chan’s potentially go-ahead triple rimmed out. Teammate Gabe Norwood managed to get the rebound and sued for time with 11.3 seconds left.

In the ensuing play, Lee tried to drive but was stopped in his tracks by Caguioa, who tapped the ball out at the baseline, leaving Rain or Shine with just 2.4 ticks.

With the Gin Kings clogging up the passing lanes, Norwood was forced to make a bouncing inbound pass to Jervy Cruz, but Hatfield intercepted the leather and dribbled it as time expired.

"I really don’t know where that’s (energy) coming from.  I’m not getting any younger so I don't know how many more chances I have of winning a title. If we’re going to go down, I wanna go down fighting. Luckily, that won’t happen tonight.”

The winner of this series will earn the right to face second seed San Mig Coffee in the best-of-five semifinals.

Earlier, Calvin Abueva bounced back big time from a forgettable outing last time out, leading Alaska to an 88-70 laugher over Meralco and into the semifinals.

After fouling out in their 90-84 win in the opener, the 6-foot-3 Abueva dished out his usual form with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks for the Aces, who will take on defending champion Talk ‘N Text in the race-to-three semis affair.

High-flying Cyrus Baguio contributed 18 points while chief guard JVee Casio added 17 markers and eight assists as the Aces got back into the Final Four for the first time in the post-Tim Cone era.

“I didn’t expect that it would be like this,” stated Alaska coach Luigi Trillo. “I don’t wanna take anything away from us but Meralco was a tired team. I think they played three games in five days. They had an injured Sol (Mercado), who’s not 100 percent. They say, take advantage of opportunities. It’s a dream come true.”

Mac Cardona scattered 18 points while Mercado tried to buck a sprained ankle to finish with 15 markers and 10 assists, but the fourth-ranked Bolts still came up short in their attempt to extend the series.

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