BY  JOAQUIN  HENSON:  DRAWING  FIRST  BLOOD
 

MANILA, July 7, 2006 (STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Purefoods coach Ryan Gregorio looked like he came out of a draining interrogation session with the Gestapo after the Chunkee Giants blew a 19-point first half deficit to fall behind by six in the fourth period only to regroup and eke out a 101-97 win over Red Bull in Game 1 of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) All-Filipino Cup Finals at the Araneta Coliseum last Wednesday.

Gregorio was a picture of exhaustion and relief. He survived a monumental collapse in the third period where Red Bull scored 35 points after bleeding for only 34 in the entire first half.

To his credit, Gregorio never lost his cool under fire. The Barakos rampaged behind a smothering trap defense and a searing transition attack that wiped out Purefoods’ cushion in a matter of minutes. Then, early in the fourth period, Red Bull took over the driver’s seat for the first time, 74-72, and extended the margin to six before the Giants broke out of its stupor.

In the wake of Red Bull’s stirring comeback, Gregorio’s message to his embattled boys was simple–go for the kill because the Barakos expended a lot of energy to come back from a 19-point deficit and they’ll surely be tired down the stretch. It was an emotional appeal to save the ship because a loss–under the circumstances–would be difficult to live down in a long series.

Gregorio said Purefoods’ resiliency made the difference.

"We lost out focus defensively in the third period and we can’t allow that to happen against a team like Red Bull," he said. "But we found ways to win in the end. That’s what you call resiliency."

Purefoods almost let it slip away. The Giants missed eight free throws in the fourth period and ace gunner James Yap fouled out with the outcome far from settled. However, there were compensating factors like Marc Pingris’ unforgiving defense on Lordy Tugade in the final minutes, Richard Yee’s willingness to take the big shot, Paul Artadi’s reemergence from oblivion with three points, three assists and an offensive rebound in five minutes in the fourth period, Arnold Gamboa’s surprise contribution and Kerby Raymundo’s leadership with the game on the line.

Red Bull coach Yeng Guiao shouldn’t be too unhappy with the turn of events. Purefoods brought its A-game to the floor and the Barakos had the chance to steal it in the end.

Guiao was unruffled when Purefoods held Red Bull to 37.9 percent shooting from the floor in the first half. He watched Gregorio play out his aces then made the adjustments in the third period to completely turn the tide.

Topex Robinson triggered Red Bull’s surge in the third quarter and his disqualification on six personals in the fourth period was a severe blow. His flagrant foul on Artadi was crucial because it led to a free throw conversion and a new possession for Purefoods.

Still, with 13 ticks to go and Red Bull down by three, the Barakos weren’t out of it. Off a timeout, Red Bull had the option of scoring a quick two then giving up a foul or taking the open three. As it turned out, Cyrus Baguio got the inbounds pass and had a clear shot at the hoop from close range but he overshot because of Purefoods’ distracting defense. That sealed the deal. Yee was fouled in the rebound play, made the first free throw and snared the rebound off his miss on the second charity to run out the clock.

If resiliency was the intangible key to Purefoods’ win, rebounding was the tangible. The Giants won the battle of the boards, 51-37, and it led to 16 more field goal attempts, negating Red Bull’s huge edge in free throw conversions, 28-16. Those are stats that Guiao will want to reverse in Game 2.

By the way, Purefoods ranked last in the league’s rebounding ladder entering the Finals.

What ultimately towed Purefoods to victory was its edge in experience. Nine Red Bull players are appearing in their third Finals or less while eight Giants are seeing action in their third Finals or more. In a tight contest, experience separates the men from the boys.

For sure, Red Bull will be out to square things up with a vengeance in Game 2 tonight. The Barakos’ confidence is intact because Purefoods’ win in Game 1 was far from conclusive.

But with a win under his belt, Gregorio has the upper hand in the duel and the Giants will want nothing more than to prove Wednesday’s victory was no fluke.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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