By Michael Angelo S. Murillo
Senior Reporter
THE defending champions San Miguel Beermen are once again back in the Philippine Basketball Association Commissioner’s Cup finals after closing out the Alaska Aces in Game Four of their best-of-five semifinal series, 104-99, on Sunday night at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Deprived of a chance for a sweep in their previous game, the Beermen made sure not to fall for a second straight time and forced to a sudden death by outlasting the Aces in a tightly fought match.
Knowing the significance of the game, San Miguel and Alaska had it nip-and-tuck to start the contest.
The two teams were knotted at 9-all in the first six minutes of the opening quarter before Alaska outgunned San Miguel, 14-11, the rest of the way to take control of the first 12 minutes, 23-20.
The back and forth continued in the second quarter.
San Miguel built an early cushion only to see Alaska charge back, levelling the count at 41-all at the 1:15 mark.
June Mar Fajardo gave the Beermen a two-point lead after, 43-41, off two free throws.
But Alaska would have the last laugh as the opening half drew to a close after Vic Manuel drained a desperation three-pointer with a second to go to hand back the lead to the Aces, 44-43, at the half.
The Beermen began to flex their muscles to start the third quarter, going on a 14-6 run to build a nine-point lead, 57-48, by the eight-minute mark.
Alaska though narrowed the gap in the next three minutes, 61-59, with import Diamon Simpson making the offense of the Aces humming.
San Miguel eventually survived the Alaska fight back to stay on top after three quarters, 76-69.
Smelling blood, the Beermen opened the final canto with a 4-1 blast to extend their lead to double-digits, 80-70, with 10:08 to go in the game.
Alaska refused to be left behind as guard Simon Enciso rallied the Aces back to within four points, 94-90, with 2:50 left.
But San Miguel was not to budge easily, scoring three points to extend its lead to seven, 97-90, with a minute left.
Mr. Manuel scored for the Aces to cut their deficit to five points, 97-92, only for Alex Cabagnot to frustrate Alaska with a triple that stretched their lead anew to eight points, 100-92, with 34 ticks left.
Alaska made one last run, coming to within three points, 102-99, with four seconds remaining but could not go any closer than that as San Miguel went for the closeout.
Mr. Fajardo finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Beermen with import Renaldo Balkman adding 23 points and 16 rebounds of his own.
Mr. Cabagnot had 18 points and nine assists while Chris Ross wound up with 17 points.
Mr. Simpson, meanwhile, paced Alaska with 24 points and 21 rebounds while Mr. Manuel had 20 markers.
Mr. Enciso came off the bench for 19 points and seven assists for the Aces.
“It was not just me. Credit to my teammates for stepping up as well after we had slow start to the game,” said Mr. Fajardo, named co-player of the game along with Mr. Ross, following their victory.
“Good thing we were able to get this win so as not to make it harder for us in a Game Five had Alaska won,” he added.
The Beermen now await the winner of the other semifinal series between the Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings and Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. The Kings hold a 2-1 series advantage entering Game Four today at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.