MANILA, June 28, 2004
By Nelson Beltran  -  Red Bull Barako’s and Barangay Ginebra’s fighting spirits are back, and the Thunder and the Kings are back in PBA finals.

The Thunder and the Kings are figuring in a title showdown that could be one for the books as they defeated the Coca-Cola Tigers and the Talk n Text Phone Pals in their respective sudden death matches in the Gran Matador PBA Fiesta Conference Final Four before a jampacked crowd at the Araneta Coliseum last night.

The Thunder squandered a 16-point third-quarter lead on a torrid second-half shooting by Mark Sanford, but regrouped and recovered lost ground, beating the Tigers, 101-91, for the first slot in the best-of-five title playoff.

The Kings, meanwhile, raced to a 16-point lead also in the third and hang tough the rest of the way, topping the Phone Pals, 111-103, to arrange a title fight with the Thunder.

Strangely, both Red Bull Barako and Barangay Ginebra finished outside the Magic Four at the end of the double-round preliminaries. They bucked the odds in the post-prelims plays to set up their first-ever championship tiff.

"Naging pitpitan ng b-y-g ang laban. Buti na lang may dala kaming reserba at nailabas namin kanina," said Red Bull coach Yeng Guiao in ending Coca-Cola’s streak of four straight finals appearances.

"We’d gone through another anxious moments. But I’m not surprised. We have had lots of difficulties this conference. We’ve gone through six imports, the tough Shell and San Miguel games and not to mention my campaign during the last elections. We pulled through not only because of hard work but also lots of lucks," Guiao added.

"Total team effort. I can’t say enough of the boys from Eric Menk who is the team leader and to the boys who didn’t play. Hard word paid off," said Ginebra coach Siot Tanquingcen in booting out Talk n Text – the reigning All-Filipino champ which loomed as the top favorite for the crown following earlier ouster of top seeds San Miguel Beer and Alaska Milk.

Mark Caguioa, who went scoreless in the first half, picked up his game in the second half and teamed up with Torraye Braggs, Eric Menk and Jayjay Helterbrand in dealing Talk n Text the vicious blows.

For Red Bull Barako, curiously rising to the occasion while under heavy attack from Sanford was diminutive guard Jimwell Torion.

Torion rose up to challenge Sanford in a fiery shootout in the second half, making 14 of his 22 points in the last two quarters, including three clutch treys that helped fuel the Thunder’s decisive romp from an 81-all standoff with seven minutes left to play.

The Tigers, who fell behind by 16 at 37-53 early in the third, got back in the thick of things as Sanford returned from the halftime break with his gun ablaze, firing 18 in the third quater and 15 in the final canto.

"Sanford’s explosion after the halftime break was unusual. We had our hands up, shoot pa rin ng shoot. Hindi siya mapigil," said Guiao of the Coke import who went 14-of-22 from the field for 33 points in the second half. Sanford incidentally averaged only 20.5 points in the first two games of the series.

"Hindi mapigil ni Davonn (Harp), Mick (Pennisi) at (Victor) Thomas. We just gambled on putting up Junthy (Valenzuela) on him (at endgame) just to change his look and change his balance. And he started to miss," added Guiao.

After making his 42nd point in the game with still 5:33 left in the clock, Sanford never scored again until the time was only down to three seconds and his teammates were already heading to the lockerroom.

"I have to give credit to Coca-Cola for fighting a good semis series. Actually natakot kami noong natapat kami against them in this semis. We know they have a good playing attitude and they play so well," said Guiao.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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