WHEN Meralco arranged a title duel with San Miguel Beer (SMB), the big question then was: Can the Bolts’ frontline handle the great June Mar Fajardo?

Not backing down from this Kraken-sized challenge, Raymond Almazan, Brandon Bates, Cliff Hodge, Kyle Pascual and Norbert Torres resolutely responded with a superb effort game in and game out over six hard-fought matches.

Sure, seven-time MVP and 10-time Best Player of the Conference winner Mr. Fajardo got his points (23.17 per outing) and rebounds (13.5 per match), but there’s no greater validation of the Meralco frontcourt’s handiwork than the PBA Philippine Cup trophy it hoisted at the end of Game 6.

“I think everybody was on board as far as understanding how we would have to play defense,” said Meralco consultant Norman Black, whose primary task is to work with Mr. Almazan and Company to prepare for Mr. Fajardo and before him, Christian Standhardinger and Japeth Aguilar of Barangay Ginebra in the semis.

“We wanted to handle June Mar (Fajardo) in a certain way. We know we can’t stop him but we wanted to at least slow him down, if we could. Everybody’s great as far as how we wanted to get it done and we executed it very, very well,” he added.

With the bigs as anchor, triumphant Meralco battled Mr. Fajardo and frontcourt partner Mo Tautuaa toe to toe under the boards. The Bolts averaged 47.8 rebounds against the Beermen’s 47.7 and did a better job off the offensive glass, 16.2 versus 15.8.

Rookie Mr. Bates served as Meralco’s surprise package. The Fil-Australian logged 3.8 points, 6.17 boards, 1.83 block and 0.5 steal and produced many other intangibles in carrying out his duty as one of Meralco’s designated “Mr. Fajardo stoppers.”

“Let’s face it, Brandon (Bates) was really a (revelation). He did things we didn’t think he could do in this series. He really played very well for us. He has a very bright future ahead of him,” said Mr. Black of Mr. Bates.

“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Mr. Bates said. “Honestly, he’s one of the strongest guys I’ve ever played against. Having to guard him after Messrs. Standhardinger and Japeth, it was monumental. It was really difficult and my body is feeling it right now.”

Unlike vets Chris Newsome and Cliff Hodge who waited all their careers for a championship, Mr. Bates struck gold in only his second conference.

“It’s surreal. It’s like a movie. This time last year I was making coffee, up by four (in the morning). Now I’m a champion, no one can take that away from me,” he said with a big smile. — Olmin Leyba