MERALCO escaped by the skin of its teeth for the second straight game, but head coach Ryan Gregorio is not about to complain.
“Okay na iyung muntik matalo kaysa muntik manalo,” said Gregorio after his Bolts barely got past tenacious Air21, 89-88, Wednesday in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Chris Ross atoned for two earlier miscues by making the big plays at crunchtime, enabling Meralco to follow up its 90-89 squeaker over GlobalPort in the Bolts’ last outing Feb. 24.
Ross canned two charities off his own interception to push the Bolts on top and his harassment of Mike Cortez led to the decisive turnover and his own recovery that eventually spelled an even 3-3 win-loss slate and a tie for fourth with idle Barako Bull for Meralco.
“A big credit goes to Ross. Bloodied and all, dove for the ball” noted Gregorio of his point guard, whose back-to-back turnovers going to the last two minutes almost cost them the game.
It was the fifth straight loss against a lone win for Air21, but this should hurt the most after the Express gamely battled back from as many as two 18-point deficits in the third quarter to take an 88-85 lead, 2:01 left.
“At this stage it’s really a basketball education for us and it’s a great relief that throughout these learnings we’re finding ways to win,” said Gregorio, whose team banked on a buzzer-beating triple to nip GlobalPort 90-89 last Feb. 24.
“I’m just so happy with the kind of warrior mentality my players have,” he added. “We lost a big lead, we were teetering on the brink of defeat with a three-point deficit in the last 45 seconds. We desperately needed to make stops and we did.”
Michael Dunigan, who spearheaded the comeback, himself spelled Air21’s doom by missing back-to-back attempts before issuing a pass collared by Ross.
Eric Dawson scored 35 points and hauled down 17 rebounds to lead Meralco, his performance capped by an undergoal stab that moved the Bolts within one.
GlobalPort game hero Sunday Salvacion added 18 points, all on a conference-high-tying six triples, while Macmac Cardona’s trey that made it 83-74 also gave him 11 for the night.
Dunigan had a league conference-high 40 points, on top of 16 rebounds, with Mark Isip the lone other double-digit scorer for Air21 with 13.
The way his players made the stops against Dunigan at the crunch also pleased Gregorio. “We simply can’t find a solution for Dunigan in the end,” he said. “He was simply overpowering us.”
Indeed, it was practically an all-Dunigan show in the second half where he wound up with 30 of his points and 12 of his boards. Those efforts propped Air21’s charge from a 42-60 deficit and to within 10 going to the final canto, before his back-to-back baskets gave the Express the lead for only the first time at 84-83.
Ross wrested the upper hand back for Meralco with a short jumper he kissed off the glass. But, after Dunigan’s short stab, he issued an errant baseline pass which Dunigan translated into a 16-foot jumper and then Ross committed an offensive foul on Cortez.
But Dunigan started unraveling by first losing the ball against a double-team of Dawson and Ross.
“We still found the courage to sneak in and go for that much-needed win for us,” said Gregorio. “It will be a long battle, a long conference for us. All our games will be like this. As long as we end up winners we don’t mind it. (NC)
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