MANILA, JULY 13, 2007
(STAR) SPORTING CHANCE By Joaquin M. Henson - Alaska guard Willie Miller turns 30 today. Will he get some good luck instead of bad on Friday the 13th?

Last Wednesday, Miller erupted for 29 points but couldn’t tow Alaska to victory as Talk ’N’ Text overcame a 23-point deficit, took the lead for the first time in the fourth period and snatched a 95-87 decision in Game 3 of the PBA Fiesta Conference Finals at the Big Dome. It was a forgettable night for the Thriller as before the tip-off, Phone Pals guard Mark Cardona was named the Best Player of the Conference.

Cardona garnered 1,488 points to Miller’s 1,016 in the two-way race for honors. Miller won in the players’ poll, 173-95, but lost out in the stats department and the votes from the media, ABC-5 and the PBA.

Miller started out hot, banging in 12 points in the first period, but went blank in the third as Talk ’N’ Text staged a furious rally. He hit 11 in the last 12 minutes in a courageous effort to reverse the tide.

Alaska coach Tim Cone had no excuses for the loss, the Aces’ second in the best-of-7 series. The Phone Pals opened the third quarter with grim determination and played with a sense of urgency that left the Aces badly shaken. Suddenly, the intensity that Alaska showed in the first half was gone.

It didn’t help that Aces import Rosell Ellis hyper extended his left knee in the first half. He lost his lift and couldn’t elevate to throw up his jump hook that was so effective previously. Ellis scored only three points in the third period and none in the fourth before fouling out. Cone said an MRI will be taken to determine the extent of the damage in Ellis’ knee.

“We panicked and started to play too much one-on-one,” sighed Cone. “We were called for a series of offensive fouls and Mike (Cortez) got his fifth personal. It wasn’t Donbel Belano’s defense but foul trouble that made Mike tentative.”

With less than two minutes to go and the game slowly slipping away from Alaska, Cone got a technical.

“It was about Don (Allado) pushing Sonny (Thoss) setting the high pick,” said Cone. “The refs told me they’d call it but they never did so I asked when they were going to call it. That’s when I got the T.”

After a jackrabbit start, the Aces ran out of steam down the stretch. It surprised Cone why they got tired because of the two-day rest from Sunday’s Game 2. The Aces just couldn’t match the Phone Pals’ energy level in the second half.

Talk ’N’ Text coach Derick Pumaren said despite the rousing win, it didn’t establish a trend, one way or the other, for the rest of the series. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.

The Phone Pals’ comeback was reminiscent of Alaska’s recovery from 17 down in Game 1 to win, 113-85, proving that in the Finals, no lead is safe regardless of how big it is.

Down by 16 at the half of Game 3, Pumaren berated the Phone Pals in the locker room for playing listlessly. “It was like an inter-village scrimmage for us,” said Pumaren. “We were flat. We had no intensity. We weren’t aggressive. Luckily, we broke out in the second half.”

For the first time in the Finals, Talk ’N’ Text had more assists, 19-11, the Phone Pals bench outscored the Alaska relievers, 13-10, and the Aces were held to less than 40 percent field goal shooting.

Pumaren’s finishing unit of J. J. Sullinger, Jay Washington, Don Allado, Belano and Cardona got the job done.

“It can’t be just a Sully and Mac-Mac show for us,” said Pumaren. “The other guys have to do their share and they did.” Belano tallied 13 of his 14 points in the second half. Washington netted six of his nine in the fourth period and fortified Talk ’N’ Text’s interior defense with Allado.

Now, it’s Alaska’s turn to adjust. To win Game 4, the Aces must play hard-nosed defense from start to finish. That means pressure all over the court. A measurable goal would be to hold the Phone Pals to less than 90 points.

Additionally, Alaska can’t give up too many free throws (an average of 45 the last two games) and the offense shouldn’t stagnate to one-on-one. The frontliners – Thoss, Reynel Hugnatan, John Ferriols and Nic Belasco – must help out Cortez, Ellis and Miller in the scoring chores. And the Aces can’t afford to give the Phone Pals opportunities to score off turnovers – in other words, they must take better care of the ball.

Alaska wins with defense, which starts in the backcourt. To keep the Phone Pals guessing, Cone could try playing some zone to limit Cardona’s penetrations and take away Harvey Carey’s inside points. Establishing a last line of defense is key because Cardona and Sullinger like to drive strong to the hole.

If Miller gets lucky on his birthday, Alaska might just tie the series tonight.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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