Right after the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok advanced to the PBA Philippine Cup Finals after beating the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in a defensive slugfest, I tweeted the following:

I’ll be honest: there was some tongue in cheek to that tweet. Of course the San Miguel Beermen aren’t a “prize” to go up against. They’re a nightmare of a team to face in the Finals. That specific core was six time champions at that time while being fresh off a convincing 4-1 series win against the first-seeded Phoenix Pulse Fuel Masters. Given those facts, there were a number of fans who thought to themselves: Sus. Tingin ba ng Magnolia matatalo nila tayo?

Fast forward to May 15, 2018, running in the minds of Beermen fans was: How the hell did SMB pull that off?

This is the story of what happened in between those two thoughts.

Sus. Tingin ba ng Magnolia matatalo nila tayo?

This was deja vu all over again, except this time around, things looked far worse for the Hotshots. Just last year, Magnolia was also matched up versus San Miguel only to lose via a gentleman’s sweep. It wasn’t the type of 4-1 series loss where Magnolia could pat themselves in the back for a job well done. Over the course of five games, the Beermen simply looked like they were in a different tier than the Hotshots. At the center of San Miguel’s dominance was Junemar Fajardo.

It was still fresh in the minds of San Miguel and Magnolia fans. During the title-clinching Game 5, Junemar Fajardo put on a clinic in the low block en route to 42 points and 20 rebounds. Ian Sangalang and Rafi Reavis, Magnolia’s two primary big men, looked more like stationary cones for drills rather than actual opponents in a Finals game. Seeing Reavis get torched like that was understandable. Others said, “Matanda na siya eh.” For Sangalang’s case, however, it was a completely different story.

Akala ko di makakarecover sa ACL eh,” said a friend who also happens to be a former Magnolia fan. (side note: he’s since moved on to Rain or Shine. Pretty easy to spot why he jumped ship. Clue: Yames Jap. Hi JS!) The former number two pick’s career had been far from a smooth ride. After a promising rookie season, he suffered devastating ACL and MCL injuries during the first game of his sophomore year. After recovering and being cleared to play, his performance wasn’t the same. He looked hesitant when operating in the post. His defense did not look as stout. Quite frankly, he looked far from the franchise cornerstone many envisioned him to be. There was always a cloud of doubt when talking about Sangalang’s prospects as a big man in the league.

Just when Ian was starting to establish a rhythm, he bumped into a rampaging Junemar Fajardo in the 2018 Finals. He was helpless defending the Kraken and it only solidified the doubts people had regarding Sangalang’s status as a player. He was solid, sure. But to call him as a cornerstone of a championship level team sounded crazy. If Magnolia was going to win a championship, it would be because of their guards. Not Ian. Never Ian.

Fast forward to 2019 and the noise continued to creep in. While he had a promising showing versus Beau Belga in Magnolia’s semifinal series, he was set to face the same man who scored 42 points on him the previous year. Doubt was aplenty with how Ian, Reavis, and the rest of Magnolia would handle Fajardo and his team.

Come Game 1, Magnolia wound up winning with Sangalang putting up 17 points and 12 rebounds versus Junemar Fajardo. Beermen fans scoffed. Watch San Miguel flip the switch.

Come Game 3, with the series tied at 1-1, Magnolia came out victors once more with Sangalang putting up 17 points and 15 rebounds against San Miguel’s supposedly superior frontline. The opposing fandom whispered once more, Watch San Miguel flip the switch.

In a pivotal Game 5 that could have title-clinching implications, it was Mark Barroca who came out the hero with his game-winning shot. But the one who kept things steady for Magnolia when things looked to be going the Beermen’s way, none other than Sangalang himself. 18 points and 14 rebounds in another inspired performance from the big man. There was no more scoffing nor whispering being done by the San Miguel faithful. Instead, noise was starting to build up with a crowd asking, Is Ian Sangalang the real deal?

Most importantly, the question that needed answering was, Are the Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok the real deal? All three of the Hotshots’ wins from Games 1-6 were by five points or less. It’s easy to attribute wins like these to sheer luck. But doing so would be an injustice to the brilliance of Chito Victolero in guiding his team to this level.

The Hotshots have never been considered as a team with firepower despite their bevy of guards. To compare them to the likes of San Miguel and Ginebra seemed ridiculous. They were a well-coached team, yes, but to consider them as equals to their sister team was a stretch.

To an extent, there was some truth to this. They were exactly the same as San Miguel and Ginebra. It didn’t only come with coaching, but also with how their roster was constructed. They didn’t have big name cornerstones such as a Fajardo or a Japeth Aguilar. Paul Lee was the closest big name which they had, but in the eyes of basketball observers, he didn’t match the level Aguilar and Fajardo were in.

They don’t have any of those things. Instead, what the Hotshots had was a deep pool of talent that had plenty of grit and a chip on its shoulder. Sangalang was in the process of establishing his place once more in the league’s list of elites. Jio Jalalon was often seen as inferior to Scottie Thompson. For many, Mark Barroca did not have the make-up of the league’s best point guard. Then there’s Rafi Reavis, who many wondered how he was still in the league at 41 years of age.

Magnolia as a group had been doubted for the longest time. They used this to fuel their play. They weren’t going to outscore you, they didn’t have the firepower for that. Instead, they were going to grind you down with a defense so versatile finding holes in it was close to impossible. At the very least by trying their best to limit the other team, the Hotshots always gave themselves a chance to win the game by the final buzzer. At the end of the day, you only needed to be leading by one to win a basketball game. The Hotshots, with their tough as nails defensive system, were finding ways to come out on top despite their limitations.

This was put to the test in Game 7 of the Finals, with a championship at stake. This was a kind of pressure this core did not have experience with unlike San Miguel. But it didn’t really matter, they weren’t favored to win anyway. So why fold? Why give up? What about play the way you have to get to this stage and give yourself a shot by the end of the game?

Despite an early San Miguel rally, Magnolia continued to fight on. By the end of the first quarter, they found themselves up by four points. They continued to be aggressors, limiting San Miguel to a PBA Finals record-low of just five points during the second quarter. Obviously, the Beermen wouldn’t give up without a fight. The Hotshots knew that. All they needed to do was keep attacking and give themselves a shot before the final buzzer sounded. That’s all they really needed, a chance.

With 4.8 seconds remaining in the game, Paul Lee grabbed the rebound after Fajardo missed both of his free throws from the charity stripe. The Hotshots had no more timeouts. It didn’t matter. They had an opportunity. Any shot would have sufficed.

With Chris Ross and Arwind Santos on him, Paul tried his best to split the double team. A strip by Arwind took away a second of time from Paul. With time ticking quickly, Paul tried his best to grab the loose ball and throw up a hail mary.

Just pray it goes in. Just throw it up. Give yourselves a chance.

The ball failed to even hit rim. Those in red celebrated. Those in white burst into tears. The San Miguel Beermen had completed their five-peat. The Magnolia Hotshots, on the other hand, were heartbroken.

How the hell did SMB pull that off?

“Ang hirap niyong kalabanin!” screamed Alex Cabagnot at the remaining Magnolia fans in attendance.

Despite being hailed as heavy favorites all series long, the entire San Miguel team couldn’t help but be amazed at what Magnolia had showcased during the series. Magnolia did not just push San Miguel to seven games in the Finals. They also earned the respect of the fans and the league as legitimate contenders for the championship.

By all accounts, Ian Sangalang should be considered as a franchise cornerstone. His skill in the low post is among the best in the league and the sight of him blossoming, even more, is not out of question. Jio Jalalon has made his mark in the Jio versus Scottie debate. Mark Barroca has captured the hearts of all basketball fans with his big-time plays. Rafi Reavis showed us that age is just a number.

The Hotshots aren’t built like your typical championship team. The way their team is constructed isn’t exactly ideal. But in their own special way, they’ve made it work. With that, salute. No tongue in cheek this time around.