MANILA, NOVEMBER 21, 2003  (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - If figures don’t lie, it’s either defense will win for Sta. Lucia Realty or offense for Alaska in tonight’s do-or-die rubber match for the last Group A semifinals ticket in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Reinforced Conference at the Araneta Coliseum.

In the Realtors’ nine wins so far this conference, they’ve held their opponents to an average of only 81 points a game. In their six losses, their opponents hit at a 94.8 clip. Clearly, Sta. Lucia wins when its defense clicks. The stats show that the Realtors prefer a low-scoring, defense-oriented game than a high-octane, offensive shootout. It’s only logical since coach Alfrancis Chua likes to clog the lane with Marlou (The Skyscraper) Aquino and Dennis (The Menace) Espino, making it difficult for opponents to score high percentage shots close to the rim.

Chua has the luxury of using Jason Webb and Kiko Adriano in the backcourt for defensive purposes. His guard combination for offense is Kenneth Duremdes and Paolo Mendoza. Import Ray (King) Tutt is the fixture at the three-spot.

Alaska, in contrast, would rather play it fast–at least against Sta. Lucia. The Aces are hard-pressed to match up, size-wise, in the frontline so coach Tim Cone compensates by going to his strength–quickness in the backcourt. Mike Cortez, Brandon Cablay, John Arigo and Ike Fontaine are deadliest when they’re on the break because they leave Sta. Lucia’s big men biting the dust.

It’s no wonder that in Alaska’s six wins this conference, the Aces averaged 94.2 points. And in the team’s 10 losses, Cone’s boys hit only at a 79.7 clip.

So for the Realtors to win tonight, they’ve got to hold Alaska down to 80 points or less. If the Aces score 90 or more, the probability is the Aces will advance to the semis and the Realtors take an early Christmas vacation.

The trend is glaring in analyzing the first two games of the best-of-3 quarterfinals. In Game 1, the Realtors limited Alaska to two sub-20 point quarters and won, 88-79. Sta. Lucia’s defense held Alaska to only 34.4 percent from the field. So it didn’t matter that the Aces had 17 more field goal attempts, 11 more offensive rebounds, three more steals and four more blocked shots. What made the difference was the Realtors’ defense checked Alaska’s offense.

In Game 2, it was the other way around. Alaska’s backcourt produced 72 of its 95 points and the Aces used a 32-point fourth period to even the series at a win apiece. Sta. Lucia was crippled when Aquino got into early foul trouble and lost his aggressiveness in defense. The Aces took advantage of the Skyscraper’s inability to intimidate and roared to a 15-4 edge in fastbreak points. With Aquino shackled, Sta. Lucia managed only a single blocked shot while Alaska swatted away eight.

The duel isn’t only about Alaska’s offense versus Sta. Lucia’s defense. It’s also about revenge.

Kenneth Duremdes used to play for Alaska and now, suits up for Sta. Lucia. He was traded by the Aces in the offseason. Fontaine used to play for Sta. Lucia and now, suits up for Alaska. Both have an axe to grind against their former clubs for forsaking them. Their time for payback has come.

Ali (The Mountain) Peek is expected to play for Alaska after sitting out the last seven games, four of which the Aces lost. If he’s even 70 percent healthy, Peek will at least take up space inside the paint and force either Aquino or Espino to play honest defense. He’ll be a big help to the guards and vice versa.

Still, the secret to Alaska’s success lies in its backcourt. Cablay has been a revelation in the series. No Realtor can keep pace when Cablay steps on the gas. His acceleration is incredible. And he’s a long-armed defender, too. Cone started Cablay and Arigo together with Cortez coming off the bench in the first two quarterfinal games. There’s no reason why he won’t start them again tonight.

One change Cone made in Game 2 was inserting seldom-used Don Camaso in the starting unit instead of Don Allado to body up on Espino off the bat without fear of fouling out. Camaso didn’t play in Game 1 at all.

Alaska has won 2-of-2 do-or-die games this conference and the Aces are hoping to make it three in a row to survive the quarters. So far, Alaska and Sta. Lucia are even in their head-to-head conference series at two wins each.

A Sta. Lucia weakness that Alaska will no doubt exploit is its free throw shooting. Before the playoffs, the Realtors ranked last in free throw percentage at .590. They also had the most turnovers a game, 20.6.

In Game 2, Sta. Lucia missed 10 free throws and were slapped 19 turnovers leading to 24 Alaska points. Duremdes shot poorly from the stripe, connecting on only 2-of-5. The Realtors lost by 11. It doesn’t take a math whiz to figure out what went wrong for Sta. Lucia.

Chua and Cone know what to do to win. It’s up to their boys to get the job done. In the end, execution will spell the difference.

San Miguel Beer will play the winner of tonight’s duel in the Group A best-of-5 semifinals starting Sunday. The other semifinal pairing pits Group B qualifiers Talk ‘N’ Text and Coca-Cola.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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