Led by Nino Canaleta’s league season-high and franchise record nine triples, Air21 laid claim to the eighth and last quarterfinals berth via a 95-91 overtime upset of Petron Blaze Saturday night in the third to the last playdate of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup eliminations at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
The Express’ sixth win in 14 games thus shut the door on Barako Bull’s bid to forge a playoff for the last quarterfinals seat while the Boosters also bid goodbye to their hopes of forging their own playoff bid for the second and last twice-to-beat advantage in the first round of the playoffs after absorbing a sixth loss in 13 games.
Alaska (11-3) and Rain or Shine (9-4) will thus have the Nos. 1 & 2 seeds respectively and those twice-to-beat incentives in the quarterfinals against the Nos. 8 and 7 teams in their pairings which will begin on Feb. 20.
Only the places in the two best-of-three quarterfinals starting Feb. 19 plus which teams will be Nos. 7 & 8 are going to be determined in the remaining games of the eliminations which will end on Wednesday.
“One thing I love about Nino, he’s not a bashful player. Every practice he makes sure he does some extra shooting. I’d campaign for him to become the Most Improved Player this year,” said Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren of his leading local scorer who finished with 37 points built around a 9-for-18 shooting from three-point range.
It was the most triples made by any player this season and since Renren Ritualo of Air21, now the Barako Bull franchise, also had nine on Jan. 27, 2006 in the 2005-06 Fiesta Conference semifinals against Purefoods.
Canaleta capped his heroics with a three-point play with 1:40 remaining in the extra period which broke the game’s final deadlock at 89-all as the Express completed their comeback from as much as 17 points down early in the second quarter.
Air21, which will enter the playoffs for the second conference after missing all three last season, also won the game despite missing the services of Mike Cortez who was suffering from back spasms and an injured right calf muscle.
Playing with a hurting knee, Air21 import Michael Dunigan still managed to finish with 18 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and four shotblocks while Bonbon Custodio and Wynne Arboleda added 14 and 10 markers, respectively.
Petron Blaze import Henry Sims led his team with 30 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals but it was Marcio Lassiter who figured in a virtual three-point shootout with Canaleta in the second half, finishing with 23 points on a 6-for-8 shooting beyond the arc.
The Boosters were ahead by only 14-12 at the 4:07 mark of the first period when a Lassiter triple ignited a 15-2 run that gave them a commanding 29-14 lead, a few seconds before former Petron Blaze big man Noy Baclao ended the first 12 minutes of play with a basket for the Express.
Lassiter actually had two triples in that run which was capped by five straight points from Jay Washington.
Sims stretched the Boosters lead to 33-16 with four straight points to start the second quarter before Canaleta began to wax hot from three-point range, going 5-of-6, as Air21 was able to cut the deficit to just 54-44 at the half. (FM)
AIR21 95 – Canaleta 37, Dunigan 18, Custodio 14, Arboleda 10, Baclao 6, Isip 4, Omolon 4, Atkins 2, Sena 0, Wilson 0, Menor 0, Ritualo 0.
PETRON BLAZE 91 – Sims 30, Lassiter 23, Washington 15, Fajardo 5, Miranda 5, Lutz 4, Cabagnot 3, Lanete 2, Santos 2, Pena 2, Tubid 0.
Quarterscores: 16-29, 44-54, 72-74, 87-87, 95-91