MANILA, JUNE 7, 2006 (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Over 11,300 fans in the stands and thousands, if not millions, more watching on TV were treated to a barnburner by the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) at the Araneta Coliseum last Sunday as Barangay Ginebra lived up to its reputation as a never-day-die team in coming from behind to upset Air21, 118-114, in overtime with a depleted lineup.

It was PBA commissioner Noli Eala’s idea to put up a wildcard series before the quarterfinals for late bloomers to gain the chance of catching the last bus to the playoffs. The format was carefully studied and formulated to reduce to the least probability the incidence of no-bearing games.

The double-round phase was called the classifications, not the eliminations, because no team was struck out at the end of the initial stage of the conference. The top two finishers gained outright tickets to the semifinals as their reward and the next three booked automatic tickets to the quarters with the last slot to be decided by the four bottom teams in the wildcard series.

Each wildcard team brought along its classification record in the carryover system but a team that wins three in a row will earn a playoff for the last quarterfinals berth if it doesn’t end up on top.

As it turned out, Ginebra and Air21 were unbeaten in two wildcard outings entering their encounter last Sunday. It was a knockout game as both teams brandished identical 9-9 records.

Battling for survival, the Kings and the Express played like gladiators in a Roman arena. They scratched, clawed and held on to their last breath.

Ginebra was a huge underdog because coach Siot Tanquingcen showed up with a decimated lineup. In the injured list were Jay-Jay Helterbrand, Andy Seigle, Rodney Santos, Romel Adducul and Aris Dimaunahan. Mike Holper, Sunday Salvacion and Eric Menk were suited up but were far from 100 percent.

But Tanquingcen refused to give up without a fight. The Kings wound up the classifications with a 109-107 squeaker over Red Bull then swept their wildcard assignments, tripping in succession, Talk ’N’ Text, 108-96, Sta. Lucia Realty, 108-101 and finally, Air21.

With his nucleus in a shambles, Tanquingcen brought out the best in little-used Manny Ramos, Mark Macapagal, Egay Echavez and Allan Salangsang to lead the Kings to the quarterfinals. Kalani Ferreria’s contributions were also significant. Menk and Salvacion also delivered quality minutes but the hero was clearly Mark (The Spark) Caguioa who before the season, vowed to run naked in the streets if Ginebra fails to retain the All-Filipino crown.

Caguioa exemplified Ginebra’s legendary spirit of playing through adversity. He courageously put the team on his back and scored a career-high 45 points in the do-or-die win over Air21. Still, Ginebra couldn’t have won without firepower backup from Macapagal, Menk, Echavez, Salvacion, Ramos, Ferreria, Salangsang, Holper and even Ervin Sotto.

If Tanquingcen is the Miracle Worker, Caguioa is the King of Kings.

When the smoke of battle cleared, Eala texted this message, "Wasn’t that a fantastic game! The true essence of a wildcard game!"

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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