MANILA, August 25, 2003 (MALAYA) By MARIVIC AWITAN  -Alaska's championship in the Samsung PBA Invitationals was its 11th in all. It also ended a long title-drought.

But this one should stand out in the Uytengsu franchise's treasure chest.

Few people know it, but Alaska should not have gone that far. Especially for coach Tim Cone, who unabashedly shed tears in the midst of the team's celebrations following the winner-take-all match last Saturday.

It was long after he had regained his bearings that Cone laid bare the numerous doubts and fears that had overcome him after steering the team to the 2000 All-Filipino Cup title.

The Aces actually finished no lower than sixth the next two seasons. But that hurt the pride of the PBA's most dominant team of the 90's, and the extreme perfectionist that is Cone.

""During the 2001 and 2002 season I felt very down, really low," said Cone. "It took some lengthy words of encouragement from Mr. (team owner Wilfred) Uytengsu for me to face my problems and go on with my job."

How bad was the situation? "Actually, it already came to a point that I even thought of quitting," admitted Cone.

The questions and doubts started pouring in after the owner and coaching staff decided to re-tool the team in favor of youth.

In successive major decisions that hogged the headlines, the likes of Johnny Abarrientos and Edward Juinio, Jeffrey Cariaso, Rodney Santos and Kenneth Duremdes were either traded or released.

That is why coming into this season, Cone did not entertain much chances for his team, figuring it would take quite a while before the team would regain its winning ways.

His words were reinforced when the Aces, showing lapses in crucial stretches, failed to make it to the finals of the All-Filipino, losing in an epic five-game semifinals series to eventual Talk N' Text.

But his hopes and those of the team's owners and supporters started a steady rise when the team repeatedly passed different tests in the mid-season conference.

First, Alaska rose from the rigors of qualifying for the tournament proper, then the eliminations and semifinals, racking up one win after another.

The Aces were yanked back to earth after absorbing a 94-81 loss in Game One of the best-of-three finals series with Coca-Cola, giving it an instant reality check and putting it in a do-or-die situation in Game Two.

The relatively young Aces proved their mettle by hacking out a 78-76 win, arranging the winner-take-all match last Saturday.

It seemed the Aces were headed for collapse, blowing as much as a 17-point lead and engaging in another dogfight until the final minutes.

Then rookie Brandon Cablay came to the rescue, hitting timely baskets that quashed the Tigers' protracted uprisings.

In the end, Alaska came up with a 91-86 win, rewarding the team's efforts against a very worthy opponent that included the likes of Abarrientos, Cariaso and Juinio, and fully restored Cone's confidence.

"This championship re-affirmed my confidence," said Cone

"I'm very very happy. I could not find a word how to describe my feelings right now. And I'm more happy for my players, especially Ali Peek, John Arigo and the rest of the team because this is such a big achievement and reward for them," said Cone.

With the victory, Cone is looking forward to a more successful stint for his wards in the future.

"This is very young team and I hope that this win will be the start of a more fruitful campaign for us in the years to come."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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