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ATKINS ON FIRE AS AIR21 SURPRISES ALASKA

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AIR21’s remaining hopes in the PBA Governors Cup may be dim, but it still managed to come up with one very bright note in perhaps its last game of the conference.

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The Express came up with the kind of exceptional game long expected of them to pull the rug from under unsuspecting Alaska, 121-107, Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The victory enabled Air21 to wind up the nine-game eliminations with a 3-6 slate and its hopes of playing off for the eighth and last quarterfinals spot now depends on how Talk ‘N Text fares against Barangay Ginebra later in the evening.

If the Tropang Texters beat the Kings by at least 23 points then the two and the Express all wind up with identical 3-6 records. 

Due to an inferior quotient Ginebra is eliminated while TNT and Air21 play off Monday at the Cuneta Astrodome for the final spot in the last eight.

Air21 can also earn the playoff slot against Talk ‘N Text if the Tropang Texters win by 22 over the Kings while the latter to 92 points or less.

Considering the Texters have not won by more than seven points against their opponents in the season-ending tourney, the Express’ hopes seem bleak enough. 

“Too bad our destiny right now is not in our hands. But we’re still hoping a miracle will happen in the second game,” said Air21 coach Franz Pumaren.

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“But even if we don’t make the playoffs I’m still proud of our team. We can use this as a motivational factor for the next conference,” added Pumaren.

As a result, totally foiled was Alaska’s own bid to play off for the No. 4 slot and its accompanying twice-to-beat advantage in the quarterfinals as it fell to No. 7 and a meeting with No. 2 seed San Mig Coffee at the start of the quarterfinals Tuesday at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

No little thanks to a fine show by Air21.

Zach Graham scored 27 points but it was the likes of rookie Simon Atkins and Joseph Yeo who pointed the Express to their biggest win of the conference and highest score yet after averaging just 94 in their first eight games.

Atkins made his first seven shots from the field, including all six of his three-pointers, for a career-high 22 points while Yeo, in only his third game with Air21 since being acquired from Petron Blaze, added 21 points and seven assists.

Nino Canaleta, Vic Manuel and Bonbon Custodio added at least 10 points each and Asi Taulava, another late acquisition, scored just seven points but hauled down 10 rebounds.

The game may have had all the trappings of a shootout but Air21 also took some care of the defensive end as it limited Alaska in the stretches that mattered most, especially in the endgame.

After creeping to within 100-111 with still 5:07 left, the Aces were held to just a 3-for-10 field shooting and one turnover the rest of the way.    

Wendell McKines scored a PBA career-high 43 points while Cyrus Baguio, Sonny Thoss, Calvin Abueva and Jayvee Casio had at least 12 points each for Alaska.

Yet in this one particular time the Aces were completely at the mercy of the Express, who took control of the game as early as late in the first quarter before fending off each uprising with seeming ease.

Deprived a basket following what clearly looked like a defensive goal-tending by McKines, Taulava had a turnaround banked shot in the return play, Ogie Menor scored his lone basket off a drive and Atkins strung up five points to pull Air21 away from a 65-64 count.

Including a technical foul throw off Alaska head coach Luigi Trillo’s vehement protestations on a non-call, the Express also rattled off six straight points at the start of the fourth period to stretch their lead to 96-83.

Atkins, tabbed at 21st overall in the third round of last year’s rookie draft, and now Air21’s starting point guard following the departure of Mike Cortez, readily gave a glimpse of what was to come with 11 points, anchored on three triples, in the first quarter.

Custodio chipped in six of his own points to help give Air21 a 35-28 lead and although the Aces crept to within 44-45 Atkins, Taulava and Yeo were chiefly responsible for bailing the Express out and into a 54-45 spread they maintained at 63-54 at the turn.

Air21’s 121 points were its most the entire season while its 61.1% field goal shooting was a new all-time franchise record since entering the league last season as Shopinas.com.

Atkins’ 6 for 6 three-point shooting also equalled the league all-time record for most triples made in a game without a miss shared by Glen Capacio, Vic Pablo, Dondon Hontiveros and Renren Ritualo. (NC)

The scores:

Air 21 121 – Graham 27, Atkins 22, Yeo 21, Canaleta 16, Manuel 12, Custodio 10, Taulava 7, Sharma 4, Menor 2, Omolon 0.

Alaska 107 – McKines 43, Baguio 18, Thoss 17, Abueva 15, Casio 12, Dela Cruz 2, Reyes 0, Jazul 0, Eman 0, Espinas 0, Hontiveros 0, Belasco 0.

Quarterscores: 35-28, 63-54, 90-83, 121-107

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