June Mar will crush you. Marcio can shoot the lights out. Arwind is agile AF. We all know these things, that the San Miguel Beermen have the most powerful starters in the PBA, that the Beermen will unleash a fresh hell on their opponents next conference with the addition of Christian Standhardinger and an import. But as much as we already “Fear The Beer,” the Philippine Cup Finals series against the Magnolia Hotshots is perfect proof of another truth: It’s time to Fear The Bench.
In Game 1, the Beermen’s bench scored just one point. They lost by two, 103-105. In Game 2, their bench made 20 and the team trounced Magnolia, 92-77. In Game 3, with Fajardo, Alex Cabagnot, and Chris Ross sitting, it was Gabby Espinas, Brian Heruela and Matt Ganuelas-Rosser didn’t just hold down the fort, they brought new cannons and blew shit up. The bench combined for 25 points and swarmed the Hotshots on defense, and when the dust cleared, the Beermen 111-87.
One of the more veteran players on the San Miguel bench, Espinas has insight into his position that he no doubt shares with the younger Beermen: “Bubunutin ka ngayon, next game wala, next game biglang bunot ulit. Kailangan ‘yung mindset mo, kahit di ka bunutin, ready ka pa rin,” he says.
Meanwhile, Ganuelas-Rosser has started some games for the Beermen while Ross recovered from his injury, but he’s since gone back to coming off the bench—not that he minds. “I love having his back,” says Ganuelas-Rosser, who doesn’t just support Ross on the court but has also backed him up off it. When Ross sparked a discussion on race in the PBA, Ganuelas-Rosser posted a well-written account of his own experiences in a mixed family.
Ross himself also credits Heruela for keeping him sharp. The fourth-year guard is often matched against Ross in practice. Just imagining the energy between those two leaves you feeling tired!
This development is the best thing that could have happened to the Beermen. From the marketing end, it makes the PBA’s most dominant team more likable—everyone loves a good bench, who are each team’s own underdogs. Super stacked dynasty teams are often criticized by saying “sila na naman” (see: San Beda Red Lions in the NCAA). You won’t win any new fans just by crushing your opponents with the weapon everyone knows you have. But if an underrated player does the job, there’s a new level of respect to be won.
It must also be great for the Beermen’s team chemistry. Even though their bench players are some of the most talented in the league and could probably start on any other team, there hasn’t really been an urgency around whether or not they can perform. In many cases, San Miguel’s starters can create separation early, and then the bench comes in simply to maintain it. But Magnolia has a lot of fight and fightback in them. How many times did they cut double digit leads to one-possession advantages and even tied scores in Game 3? The Hotshots could have taken it, if not for the Beermen’s bench mob in the fourth quarter.
The road to a championship won’t be easy for either squad. Magnolia is a proud team with both grit and experience, aiming for the upset that would shock Filipino basketball fans and inject excitement into the league. There’s a lot to root for with the Hotshots—that Ian Sangalang is performing like a finals MVP, those Paul Lee and PJ Simon threes, Jio Jalalon having fun in his rookie year finals, that they’ve dedicated this run for Marc Pingris. But for San Miguel, winning a championship is great for morale, but to win a championship with the bench will make them stronger and more confident than ever before.
Now that’s scary.