Game day did not start well for Danny Ildefonso. His therapy session for an injured calf lasted longer than planned, and he arrived at the Araneta Coliseum at 6:00PM, just 45 minutes before tip-off of Game 4 of the semis series between Petron Blaze and Talk 'N Text.
"Actually, 4:00PM ang call time namin," the two-time MVP said. "Dumating ako 45 minutes before the game kasi galing pa ako ng therapy. Last game nag-cramps ang kanang binti ko. Tapos nagkaroon siya ng kaunting tear."
Perhaps wanting to make up for lost time, the man known as "Lakay" flashed vintage form last night, scoring 22 points, including the go-ahead basket with 55 seconds left, to lead the Blaze Boosters to a big 85-82 win over their archrival Tropang Texters.
Petron is now just one win away from barging into the finals of the Philippine Cup, taking a close to improbable 3-1 series lead over the defending champions. And it has its team captain Ildefonso to thank, as the veteran center hit a remarkable 11 of 14 shots to offset the poor offensive outputs of stars Arwind Santos and Alex Cabagnot.
No shot was bigger than his 18-foot jumper from right quarter court with 55.7 seconds left that gave the Blaze Boosters an 83-82 lead. With the Tropang Texters fussing over Cabagnot and fearful he might repeat his Game 3 heroics, the ball found its way to an open Denok Miranda at the right wing. Miranda thought about taking a three, but decided to drive to the hole. A phalanx of TNT defenders awaited him, so in mid-air he turned around and swung the ball to Ildefonso, whose jumper was spot-on.
"Danny I. is Danny I.," said Petron coach Ato Agustin. "Two-time MVP iyan. Pagdating sa mga ganitong sitwasyon, mga playoffs, it's still there. Alam niya ang gagawin niya. Malaki ang tiwala ko sa kanya."
Cabagnot, who has had a sub-par series so far but who hit the game-winner in Game 3, labored through another dismal offensive game, going scoreless for the first three quarters before opening the fourth with five straight points that helped spark the Blaze Boosters. He would go on to finish with just eight points, but had 10 assists and six rebounds.
Santos was even worse, his string of consecutive double-double outputs this season finally coming to an end as foul trouble limited him to just 27 minutes of action and an un-Santos-like output of seven points and two rebounds. But Petron got a needed lift from Ildefonso, Joseph Yeo, and even seldom-used Carlo Sharma, who chipped in six points in six minutes of action in the second period.
"Give them credit," Chot Reyes said. "Right now, they're really the better team. Because for me, a team is when your mainstays aren't performing, somebody else steps up. And tonight, we held Arwind to seven points and two rebounds. What more can we do? Alex had eight points. We held those two guys below double figures, but Danny Ildefonso stepped up and in the end of the second quarter, Sharma came up big. That's the mark of a truly great team. We have to tip our hats to Petron. They really put a great team together."
For the third game in a row, fans were treated to a down-the-wire finish. Again, Talk 'N Text had the upper hand, and again, they just couldn't come up with the big plays in the end. Nursing a one-point lead at 82-81 and with ball possession, the Tropang Texters couldn't put the game away as Jayson Castro missed a three-pointer. That set up Ildefonso's go-ahead jumper with 55 ticks left.
Ranidel De Ocampo, who had another good game with 15 points, also missed a triple with 41 seconds left that would have given TNT a two-point lead. Petron patiently worked the ball around, before Miranda missed a short jumper. In the ensuing scramble, Lutz came up with a big play, leaping out of nowhere and poking the ball out of the hands of Kelly Williams and straight to Ildefonso, keeping possession alive for Petron.
The Texters were forced to foul Lutz, who coolly sank both free throws to give Petron a three-point lead with only 9.3 seconds remaining. De Ocampo again had a good look, but he missed a potential game-tying triple. Jimmy Alapag's desperation heave from 30 feet out wasn't even close, and the Blaze Boosters had survived another close game.
"Ang composure and poise ng mga players nandoon, hindi nag-papanic," Agustin said. Ginagamit nila ang kanilang experience. Like our captain ball Danny I. May nararamdaman kasi siya. But still, maganda ang nilaro niya, iyong contribution. Of course, nag-step up din ang mga other big men like Carlo. Nakalaro siya, short minutes lang, but he gave his 100%."
Reyes admitted it was tough losing three straight close games, even as he tried to take some positives from it.
"Like I said in the dugout, we lost three games by a combined total of seven points. In Games 2, 3 and 4 it was just one play. Either we make a shot or they miss a shot. But in the last three games it's always gone their way.
"They're just making the big plays that count. They're making the shots they need to make, and we're not making the shots we need to make. And that's the story. Ranidel missed that open three-pointer. We could not have asked for a better shot in that situation.
"In every single loss that we had, we were one shot away from reversing the outcome. And that gives up hope. We're down 3-1. All we need to focus now is on Friday. We've got to focus on finding a way to win on Friday."
It will be tough, though, as the Texters will likely miss Ryan Reyes, who suffered a wrist injury in the fourth period. Reyes the player topscored for his team with 17 points, a day after Reyes the coach publicly berated him for a defensive lapse in Game 3 that cost them the win.
"I think Ryan is going to be out with the injury he suffered," Chot said. "So now it's a test for our team on who can step up. Tonight they took Larry Fonacier and Jimmy out of the ballgame by focusing their defense on them. Ryan was there, he played a hell of a game until he had to leave with that injury."
Petron, of course, wants to finish the series on tomorrow, aware that it's dangerous to give a defending champion like TNT any life.
"Sa 3-1, baka ang tendency ng mga players ay mag-relax," Agustin said. "So ang mindset ng mga players kailangan nandoon pa rin. Focused pa rin kami dahil hindi pa tapos. We need four wins."
"Andito na ang chance namin," Ildefonso added. "Siguro 70-80%, halos finals na kami. Mahirap kung pagbibigyan pa namin or mag-relax pa kami sa next game. Mahirap ang ganitong chance ulit."