PBA: NO CLEAR FAVORITE AS TITLE SERIES BEGINS

Manila, July 2, 2003 (MALAYA) History beckons for Coca Cola while Talk N Text is trying to end a long winless spell.

It is with these-and more-in mind that the two squads collide tonight in what should be an explosive start to their Samsung PBA All-Filipino Cup best-of-seven championship series at the Astrodome.

No team has repeated as champion of the league's most prestigious conference the past 18 years and Coca-Cola, which had already carved its own niche last year by topping the tournament right on its first try, is bent on rewriting the books once more.

"That's (repeat) a goal we set even before the season started," admitted Tigers coach Chot Reyes in a pre-championship series press conference last Monday.

"It's gonna be a new challenge for us," chimed in Tigers forward Rudy Hatfield.

But it would take a lot of doing, since Reyes' team is ranged against a Talk N Text crew that has not topped a regular tournament since taking over the Pepsi franchise in 1996.

According to Phone Pals coach Joel Banal, their sights, for now, are trained on "making good with every possession, making the necessary (defensive) stops."

Motivation should be no problem for both coaches who greatly respect each other.

Coca-Cola won their first meeting this season via a 79-78 count last April 12 while Talk N Text bounced back with a 91-84 decision on May 4, stressing just how well-matched the two teams are.

This is not lost on Reyes, who saw how the Phone Pals outlasted pre-season favorite and last year's losing finalist Alaska in five games in the semis, including the rubber match that went into overtime.

"They come to the game very prepared. Talk N Text is here because of its refusal to quit, even in the dying seconds," he noted.

Banal, quickly paying back the compliment, said: "It's the championship experience of Coke. It's a very fluid team, every coach's envy."

Subplots are aplenty. There are Coca-Cola's Johnny Abarrientos and Jeffrey Cariaso being given another chance to carry their team to a championship, something denied them last year.

Abarrientos got injured in last year's finals opener and did not see action the rest of the series. The picture of his battered face was what the Tigers coaching staff used to pump up the players.

"Babawi ako ngayon," said Abarrientos, seemingly recovered from the groin and knee injuries that have hobbled him in late in the eliminations and through the semis.

Cariaso suffered a groin injury right in last year's semis and failed to play the rest of the way.

There's also the much-awaited match-up between Abarrientos and Phone Pals playmaker Jimmy Alapag.

"Mas gusto ko sana kung si (Alaska's Mike) Cortez ang kaharap ko. Pero okey rin si Alapag," said Abarrientos.

There is no question that Coca-Cola's defense will center on Talk N Text strongman Asi Taulava. The big question is how Mark Telan and Harvey Carey would fare against the likes of Rafi Reavis, Poch Juinio and Rudy Hatfield in their battle up front.

Alaska and Sta. Lucia Realty, which Talk N Text dispatched in four semis games, meet in a knockout battle for third in the day's opener.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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