Philsports Arena, June 28, 2003 By Nelson Beltran (Star) Coca-Cola came out bristling for a win and ended up averting an impending loss as it nearly squandered a 24-point bulge before salvaging a 99-93 win over the Sta. Lucia Realtors and a return trip to the Samsung PBA All-Filipino Cup finals last night at the Philsports Arena.

"Sta. Lucia proved itself to be a worthy challenger by showing great character but Iím proud of the boys, they hung in there," said coach Chot Reyes as his Tigers gained a return stint in the All-Filipino finals.

"We played the clock early. We played not to lose after leading by 24 points. Tingin kami ng tingin sa oras, nawala tuloy kami sa laro namin," said Coca-Cola ace player Jeffrey Cariaso.

John Arigo made up for a crucial lapse in the closing seconds of regulation play with a big three-pointer with seven seconds left in overtime play as Alaska Milk forced a sudden-death match with Talk N Text with an 87-86 decision later in the night.

The two teams play the deciding Game Five at 6 p.m. at the Araneta Coliseum tomorrow.

The Aces actually committed two mental lapses in the last 21.7 seconds of regulation, enabling the Phone Pals to send the game into overtime. The first was Arigo calling a timeout when the team had no more left and the second the team failing to beat the eight-second rule to cross the midcourt coming off a timeout.

The Tigers flirted with disaster as they allowed the Realtors to come within two points but pulled through in the end through sheer breaks.

The Realtors failed to score after narrowing the gap to two at 93-95 with still 52.4 seconds to play, enabling the Tigers to clinch their best-of-five semis series, 3-1. Coca-Cola won Game One, 85-70 and Game Three, 94-80.

"This is one big step in a journey which hopefully brings us to another glory," said Reyes as they stayed in the hunt for back-to-back All-Filipino championships.

Only three teams before have achieved the feat with Crispa doing it in 1979-1980 and 1983-84 and Great Taste in 1984-85. Two All-Filipino Conferences were played in 1984.

It was a bitter loss to Sta. Lucia which tried to extend the series by reactivating Kenneth Duremdes from the injured list.

Despite nursing an injured calf muscle, Duremdes made an impact in his comeback game, rifling in five treys and finishing with 17 points in 36 minutes of action. The 1998 MVP awardee came out smoking, going 4-of-6 from the three-point arc in the opening quarter which ended with the count tied at 25-all.

But the Tigers did the right adjustments on defense in the next two quarters, making decisive stops that triggered key runs that had the team breaking away at 82-58 going into the final 12 minutes of play.

And then the Tigers lost their roar and simply coasted along playing out the time.

The Realtors pounded on the Tigers so-so stand, ferociously attacking the lane in a fiery assault that put the team back in the thick of things at 83-90 with five minutes left in the clock.

"Thatís really the hardest thing to do in bastketball ó maintaining a huge lead. Thereís a tendency for a team to relax after getting a huge lead. The losing team, meanwhile, gets fired-up and tries to make a run," said Reyes.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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