It seems like San Mig Coffee coach Tim Cone continues to teach youthful Alaska mentor Luigi Trillo a few old tricks.
The resurgent Mixers gave the erstwhile unscathed Aces a dose of their own medicine, essaying a 75-68 victory Wednesday night to gain a share of the fourth spot in the PBA Commissioner's Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Reigning Best Import Denzel Bowles bucked another foul-plagued outing with 16 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocks but it was the team’s collective suffocating defense that pointed San Mig Coffee to its third straight win against as many losses, forging a three-way tie at fourth with Meralco and idle Barako Bull.
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Alaska, which stayed at the top spot with a 5-1 mark, never got its usual smooth offensive flow going until uncorking a last-ditch fightback, only to be quelled by Bowles and Co.
“We played a great game especially defensively,” noted the 6-foot-10 Bowles.
Cone, who led the Aces to 13 league titles including a rare grand slam in 1996, also improved to 6-0 against his former team since bolting the Alaska camp in September 2011 to join San Mig Coffee (then known as B-Meg).
Former two-time league MVP James Yap tallied 11 points while three other teammates added 10 apiece for the Mixers, who bucked a slow start by making life miserable for the Aces in the second canto, turning a six-point deficit into a 40-28 lead at the break.
During that period, Alaska misfired 15 of its 18 attempts from the field and Trillo was even assessed a technical foul.
Joe Devance joined the fray for SanMig in the third, tallying eight of his 10 points before a PJ Simon transition bucket put them comfortably ahead 60-36.
A triple by Mark Barroca, who also finished with 10 points, restored the Mixers lead at 69-49 before the Aces, sparked by RJ Jazul, uncorked a 19-4 charge, pulling them within eight, time down to just 1:47.
In the ensuing play, Bowles turned a missed Yap lay-up into a putback slam then swatted rival Robert Dozier’s short-stab, virtually sealing the deal for SanMig Coffee.
Dozier collected 16 points and 18 boards while Sonny Thoss and Jazul combined for 23 markers for the Aces, who shot 22-of-72 (30.6 percent) from the field.
So suffocating was the Mixers’ defense that the Aces’ usual sources of production–JVee Casio, Cyrus Baguio and rookie Calvin Abueva–could only get a combined 16 points on a horrendous 4-of-26 clip.
“They didn’t shoot the ball very well tonight. We spent the game trying to exploit mismatches, jumping on Denzel's back and relying on our defense, it served us well,” stated Cone.
“I tell the team ‘We gotta get to .500 and try to work from there.’ It was a horrible first three games. We kinda developed a blueprint on how we want to play now,” he added.
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Earlier, Chris Ross came through with clutch plays in the final minute to help Meralco pull off another pulsating win, an 89-88 decision over Air21.
Import Eric Dawson collected massive stats of 35 points, 19 rebounds and three steals but it was the late-game exploits of the 6-foot-1 Ross that enabled the Bolts to gain a fitting follow-up to their pulsating 90-89 victory over GlobalPort last Feb. 24.
More importantly, Meralco gained a share of the fourth spot while Air21 dropped to the cellar anew with its fifth straight setback, slipping into the company of Barangay Ginebra.
Redeeming himself from two big turnovers that enabled the Express to build an 88-85 lead with two minutes to go, Ross made the go-ahead charities off a Mark Isip foul with 11.9 seconds remaining then stole the leather from Air21 guard Mike Cortez at mid-court before milking the clock as time expired.
Ross, clearly taking the mantle left by Sol Mercado who was traded to GlobalPort prior to the start of the conference, only had five points but had 12 assists, five steals and two rebounds in another all-around outing, enough to earn plaudits from coach Ryan Gregorio.
“Big credit goes for Chris Ross. It is really basketball education for us. It’s just a great relief throughout this learning and we’re finding ways to win. I am just so happy with the kind of warrior mentality my players have. Its shows our team is coming long very well,” he said.
Import Michael Dunigan imposed his will to a game-high 40 markers, including 14 of team’s last 20 points, plus 16 rebounds but the Express still fell short.
“We simply cannot find a solution against Dunigan. Dawson was in foul trouble in the fourth,” noted Gregorio then added: :Its gonna be a long battle, a long conference for us. All our games will be like this but as long as we end up winners, I don't mind it.”
MERALCO (89) – Dawson 35, Salvacion 18, Cardona 11, Hugnatan 8, Ross 6, Hodge 4, Buenafe 3, Manuel 2, Reyes 2, Artadi 0.
AIR 21 (88) – Dunigan 40, Isip 13, Canaleta 7, Custodio 6, Omolon 6, Ritualo 5, Cortez 4, Arboleda 3, Sena 2, Menor 2, Atkins 0, Wilson 0, Baclao 0.
Quarterscores: 26-19, 49-35, 74-64, 89-88
SAN MIG COFFEE (75) – Bowles 16, Yap 11, Barroca 10, Devance 10, Simon 10, Najorda 6, Pingris 6, De Ocampo 5, Reavis 1, Mallari 0, Gaco 0, Gonzales 0.
ALASKA (68) – Dozier 16, Thoss 13, Jazul 10, Espinas 8, Baguio 7, Abueva 6, Hontiveros 5, Casio 3, Ramos 0, Dela Cruz 0.
Quarterscores: 12-18, 40-28, 62-39, 75-68