The San Miguel Beermen survived a literal slugfest, beating the Alaska Aces, 100-86, to tie this best-of-seven series at one apiece. In start contrast to the beatdown in Game 1, the Beermen gladly responded in kind to the Aces’ physical brand of basketball as they still kept their focus despite receiving and dishing out blows. Arwind Santos bounced back in a big way as he registered a game-high 22 points and a bloody forehead. Chris Lutz and June Mar Fajardo continued their strong play, combining for 35 points and 22 rebounds.
San Miguel’s offense was humming early as they had another strong start, scoring 32 points in the first quarter, the highest total given up by Alaska so far this conference. That was the result of a more patient offense, moving the ball around, and hitting shots from deep. By halftime, they were already on pace to reach the century mark, a good sign considering they struggled mightily to score in Game 1, which eventually led to their loss. Of course, this wouldn’t be a finals matchup without a few extracurricular activities sprinkled here and there with Calvin Abueva figuring in altercations with at least three different Beermen. At the start of the second half, it looked like San Miguel was due for another meltdown as they gave up an 11-2 run to Alaska. A wayward Abueva elbow to Santos’ head and David Semerad getting into scuffles seemed to fire up the Beermen. Not only were they able to salvage a two point lead to end the quarter, they also went on a monster 23-7 run in the first six minutes of the final period to put the game away.
A Diversified Offense
With only a day to tweak the offense, Coach Leo Austria did a great job of diversifying their attack. Their biggest problem was getting the ball to June Mar Fajardo down low. In this one, instead of simply standing around and waiting for him to catch the ball and kick it back out, they forced the action and relentlessly attacked any open lanes. A big part of that was their three-point shooting, something they could not do in Game 1. Though they only shot less than 30% for the game, the biggest difference was that they had success early, hitting five of their 15 attempts. That kept Alaska’s defense honest and opened up the interior as Alaska defenders couldn’t just sag or double off of someone as easily without giving up an open look or driving lane. This was evident especially in the fourth quarter as Chris Ross made a living penetrating while Fajardo had more space to operate in the post. Players were also a lot more decisive with the ball, making sure it was moving around until they could find an opening. The Aces’s philosophy has been to let anyone but the reigning MVP beat them and the Beermen did a good job making sure each and every one of them was a threat on the floor, leading to 10 players with at least two points and five in double figures.
A Game of Possessions
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They still had issues taking care of the ball, turning it over in 21.1% of their possessions but a majority of those did come in the first half as they only committed eight in the second. It’s not ideal but there was slight improvement. They more than made up for it however as they dominated the rebounding department by a huge margin. They were able to grab a staggering 63.4% of all available rebounds in the whole game, including 56.4% and 69.8% on the offensive and defensive ends respectively. Compare that to Alaska’s rebounding splits of 30.2/43.6/36.5 (offensive/defensive/total) and you can see how San Miguel lorded it over. Of note was their work on the offensive glass as there was renewed focus to crash the boards instead of just walking back on defense. In fact, eight of the 13 players grabbed at least one offensive board as there was renewed focus to help out instead of watching Fajardo try to box out four opposing players. They also won the freethrow department, able to draw freethrows on 33.3% of their possessions, compared to just 10.1% for Alaska. They did a a good job of defending without fouling while forcing the action themselves to draw contact. Simply put, all those additional rebounds and turnovers forced helped to give them more scoring opportunities either through a field goal or trips to the line.
Setting the Tone
Arwind Santos bounced back in a big way as he registered 22 points on a 56% clip, including three triples. He also took advantage of better spacing in the interior as he hit six of his seven two-point attempts. He also added 4 boards, 2 assists, and 2 steals for good measure. Fitting of the team captain, he was the one who set the tone for the Beermen at the start of the game, almost eclipsing his Game 1 total with 10 points in the opening quarter. He was also a pest on the defensive end, getting into passing lanes and not allowing himself to be overpowered in the post. More importantly, he had no qualms going blow-for-blow against Calvin Abueva, so much so that he got a nice little battle scar on his forehead that required three stitches. He got into Abueva’s head and beat him in his own game as he effectively took him out of the game mentally. Abueva seemed more concerned beating Santos than helping his team win. What impressed me was that he still kept his focus on winning the game and not getting hung up on the mind games. It will be a big boon if he can continue to have good scoring nights while keeping Abueva’s motor in check.
Chris Lutz had another magnificent performance, tallying a double-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals. His steady presence on the offensive end has been great. I also like how he has been slowly evolving his game to match the team. I mentioned before how he’s developing a decent midrange game to compensate for his poor three-point shooting. This time around, he might have figured out how to be more effective from that distance. All three of his triples were from the corner pocket instead of the usual wing spot. He found great success with that as it is not only the shortest three, but also the hardest to challenge. This also plays well into their need to space the floor.
June Mar Fajardo had a pretty slow start, both figuratively and literally. For the first three quarters, he was thoroughly outplayed by counterpart Sonny Thoss on the offensive end as he was scoring on jumpers, in the post, and transition. At times, he simply outran and outhustled Fajardo. Even Eric Menk took advantage, scoring over him once and outrunning him several times. For a while, it looked like the heavy minutes in Game 1 took its toll on his body. Near the end of the third, he seemingly woke up after extended rest, swatting an Abueva layup attempt with force. He ended the night with 15 points and 12 rebounds; solid numbers, but still far from his dominant standards. Despite his inability to get good post position for much of the game, he managed to contribute on the offensive glass, grabbing six of them and successfully converting. He was a big part of why San Miguel was able to generate so many more possessions.
There was also a noticeable change on how he got the ball, especially in the fourth quarter when he really got going. For one, there was more hi-low action as Santos was able to lob it up to Fajardo multiple times for easy layups. Fajardo himself did a better job positioning himself nearer the basket, making sure he was close enough that he could just shoot over any double or triple teams. The guards were also more decisive as they zipped the ball around without hesitation if there wasn’t a clear passing lane. Pick-and-rolls involving him were also more abundant, taking advantage of the fact that defenders always stick to Fajardo even if he’s on the perimeter, allowing space to penetrate. His usage rate is still extremely low (just used up 10.8% of his team’s total possessions) but as long as he finds other ways to contribute and continues to fight for good position, he’ll find his comfort zone eventually.
The Unsung Heroes
Chris Ross was the Beermen’s hero in the fourth quarter as he scored 10 of his 12 points, penetrating at will against Alaska’s tough defense. He also finished with 5 assists. He took great advantage of pick-and-rolls with Fajardo, shrugging off contact, and repeatedly finding himself in the paint and on the line. Most importantly, he almost single-handedly broke Alaska’s fullcourt press, shining under the pressure. He was also his usual self on the other end, flying into passing lanes just to have a chance at tipping away a loose ball. With Alex Cabagnot still in a slump and Jeric Fortuna a bit shaky, his steady play at the point guard position will serve San Miguel well as Alaska is sure to step up the defensive intensity.
Speaking of intensity, none showed it more than David Semerad. What a time for him to have a career game as he had a career-high 10 points and 4 rebounds in just 13 minutes of play. His experience playing against Abueva in the NCAA has proven invaluable as he simply shrugged off the aggressiveness and matched it with his own. His never-back-down attitude is definitely note-worthy as he didn’t care who he was up against. As much as Ross led the way in the fourth, Semerad single-handedly changed the complexion of the game in the third when Alaska looked to run away with the victory. His scuffles with Abueva, Dondon Hontiveros, and Vic Manuel served to fire up his teammates. His offense was an added bonus as he was on the offensive glass. He’s also displaying a surprisingly good stroke as he hit all 4 of his freethrows and a couple of baseline jumpers. With Rico Maierhofer’s ability to play up in the air, his motor is definitely key for the rest of this brutal series.
Special mention has to go to Nelbert Omolon and Doug Kramer who played well in extended minutes. Omolon (2 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block in 19 minutes) was great defensively, refusing to let his man get by him on multiple occasions. The stats won’t show it, but he was also a factor on the offensive glass. He only registered 2 offensive boards but he kept several possessions alive by hustling and tapping the ball to his teammates. Kramer’s play was the main reason why Coach Austria was able to limit Fajardo to just 35 minutes. He didn’t score a point but grabbed 8 rebounds, including 4 offensive, in just 12 minutes. This was probably his best performance and the most minutes he’s played since returning from his ankle injury early in the conference. We have to remember that was averaging 6 and 6 before the injury so it’s nice to see him impact the game.
Kudos has to be given to Coach Austria in expanding his rotation, giving more minutes to his bench to keep his starters fresh for the endgame. For a series as physical as this, players can be worn out quickly. It also helped that the players he fielded in contributed. He also stuck with the players and lineups that worked well for stretches. For example, hit opted to go with Ross and Omolon to end the game since they were hustling out there instead of the usual Cabagnot and Marcio Lassiter, who were still cold from the floor.
It was definitely a great win for San Miguel, able to get their offense working and pretty much beating Alaska at their own game. They seemingly figured out a way to successfully attack the defense as well. Only time will tell what adjustments Compton will have in Game 3. But at the very least, the Beermen proved to themselves they could beat Alaska and finally got rid of that little mental barrier. We’ll see what awaits in what is sure to be a bloodier Sunday game. #FearTheBeer
Featured Image Credit: Paul Ryan Tan, Sports5