MANILA, February 2, 2006
(MALAYA) BY NOLI CORTEZ - PUREFOODS Chunkee failed to get out of a grave it built for itself last night, enabling Air21 to escape with a 100-99 cliffhanger of a win that kept the Express alive in the semifinals of the San Mig Coffee-PBA Fiesta Conference at the Araneta Coliseum.

Air21 squandered as many as a 14-point third quarter lead and a 99-92 advantage in the final 1:30, but still got away with the win when the Giants flubbed their final offensive thrust in the dying seconds.

Roger Yap, whose triple made it a one-point game in the final 34.5 seconds, lost the ball off a Kerby Raymundo pass and blew a wide-open undergoal stab just before the final buzzer.

Purefoods still leads the best-of-seven series 3-2 and still has two games to clinch a finals berth. But the memory of what could have been will hover over the Giants, at least until Game Six tomorrow.

For Air21 coach Bo Perasol, meanwhile, the win is simply a testament to his players’ grit.

"Before the game, I told them we cannot go out and just give them a good fight. We should want to win," he said. "I guess they took those words to heart."

Ranidel de Ocampo, percentage-wise Air21’s top local shooter whose statistics have gone south since the quarterfinals, seemed to have recovered his touch by firing 23 points on top of six rebounds and four steals to compliment Shawn Daniels’ monster game of 22 points, 21 rebounds and seven feeds.

James Yap led all scorers with 25 points, 11 coming during the first 1:35 of the fourth quarter that brought Purefoods back from a 68-80 deficit.

But he was held scoreless the rest of the way and Perasol gave all the credit to Ren-Ren Ritualo who denied Yap the ball despite nursing a fever the past two days.

"I told him (Ritualo) he doesn’t have to help on anybody. I just want him on James all the time," Perasol related.

Air21 got additional boost in its bid when Giants import Marquin Chandler fouled out off De Ocampo with 51.7 ticks left after Raymundo completed a rare four-point play that made it a 96-99 count.

The ending was a fitting climax to a game that remained close despite Air21 using its dreaded fullcourt pressure defense. Led by De Ocampo, Daniels and Ritualo, Air21 let loose a 19-2 tear to make it a 76-62 count.

The schedule tomorrow will depend on the result of the second game being played as of presstime.

If Red Bull wins, Purefoods takes on Air21 at 5:45 p.m. at the Astrodome. If Ginebra manages to stay alive like Air21, however, the first game will have the Kings facing the Bulls at 4:40 p.m., with the Purefoods-Air21 clash set at 7:35.

Ronald Tubid backed up De Ocampo and Daniels by coming up with 15 points while Ritualo, aside from shadowing Yap, added 12. Aside from Yap, Raymundo and Chandler, nobody else among the Giants came up with double digits in scoring.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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