The Alaska Aces continued to assert their place among the league’s best as they advanced to the finals for the third straight time – and the fourth in five conferences – after a 76-70 triumph over the Meralco Bolts in a do-or-die Game 5 in the Oppo PBA Commissioner’s Cup playoffs on Wednesday at the SMART-Araneta Coliseum.
Calvin Abueva led the way with 19 points and eight rebounds while Chris Banchero also played a key role, finishing with 18 points, three rebounds and four assists from off the bench.
Import Rob Dozier had a double-double with 14 points and 18 rebounds as well in the win.
Alaska, which has finished runner-up to the powerhouse San Miguel Beermen three times in the last two seasons, will be looking to finally break through as it faces a new opponent in the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters in the best-of-seven title series.
RJ Jazul also had nine markers and Sonny Thoss chipped in with eight for the Aces.
Jared Dillinger sparked Meralco to a hot start as he knocked down back-to-back three-pointers to give the team a 10-4 lead.
The Bolts seemed to have settled into a nice rhythm as Jimmy Alapag found import Arinze Onuaku with a perfect outlet pass for an easy fastbreak dunk, 12-6, but caught a bad break when the veteran point guard signalled for a substitution immediately after the play.
It was reported later in the first half to be a jammed finger on his right hand and the former Gilas captain was not able to return to game.
The first quarter ended in a 22-all draw.
In the second quarter, Banchero came out and made contributions from all over the floor, scattering eight straight Alaska points amidst a big rally that gave them a seven-point lead, 35-28, on a Noy Baclao jumper.
But the Bolts blasted a strong 11-2 finish to the period highlighted by a pair of late three-pointers from Alapag’s backup, rookie Baser Amer.
Onuaku already had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds at the half while Dozier was not far behind with nine markers and eight boards.
Banchero also had 10 points for the Aces while Dillinger had eight for the Bolts.
Dozier and Abueva did plenty of damage in a low-scoring third quarter that Alaska controlled.
The pair combined to score 12 points, eclipsing the 11 points that the stingy Aces defense allowed in the period. Alaska closed the period on an 11-3 run, many of those from their import.
Dillinger almost pulled off an encore of his stunning buzzer-beating heave from the backcourt to end the third quarter of Game 4, this time drilling a long trey off a pass from Amer but the shot was just a tad bit too late.
Alaska came out aggressive in the final period but paid for it by garnering four quick fouls less than a minute into the fourth. That foul, too, was given up Dozier, who was tabbed with his fifth foul of the game.
The Aces, though, remained undeterred, as they took leads of as high as eight points in the quarter.
Amer then stepped up big for Meralco again, scoring the next six Bolts points, including two off a nice leakout in transition. Daredevil drives from both Cliff Hodge and Dillinger allowed Meralco to tie the game at 66-all.
Dillinger, who was fouled, capped his with an extra free throw to put Meralco on top, 67-66, with three minutes left.
But Alaska came up with some big plays. Abueva was up first as he made a crucial block on Onuaku before stripping the Meralco import to grab possession for his team. He then made sure his effort would not go to waste as he scored off a putback on the other end, 68-67.
After a miss from Onuaku, Jazul came up big as well, getting clipped on a shot and taking care of two from the stripe.
The ball went back to Meralco but an errant pass from the rookie Amer was recovered by Jazul, who was fouled again for two more free thows, which he iced for a 72-67 lead with just 27 seconds remaining.
Abueva made two more free throws to make it a seven-point lead with 14 seconds remaining and not even a late three from Dillinger could keep the Bolts alive.
Meralco was denied of the chance to advance to the finals for the first time in the history of the franchise.
ALASKA 76 – Abueva 19, Banchero 18, Dozier 14, Jazul 9, Thoss 8, Baclao 5, Hontiveros 3, Baguio 0, Dela Cruz 0, Exciminiano 0.
MERALCO 70 – Dillinger 18, Onuaku 15, Amer 12, Hodge 9, Caram 6, Faundo 4, Hugnatan 4, Newsome 2, Alapag 0, Bono 0, Buenafe Ry 0.
Quarters: 22-22, 37-39, 56-50, 76-70