The Ginebra-Meralco Game 7 experience in the Philippine Arena

About a week ago, the basketball gods smiled upon us and gifted us the greatest blessing known in sports – a game seven. It was one last battle for the 2017 PBA Governors’ Cup crown.

But it was more than that. The game was also a final duel between two teams from rival camps. It was a fight-to-death between the most popular team in the land and its brewing nemesis. Most importantly, it was the bifurcation of a story, leading to either revenge or back-to-back championships.

As celebrated as game sevens are, it’s important to understand that not all of them are created equal. Just consider the most recent one, when the Houston Astros won the World Series over the LA Dodgers. That was, well, umm, pretty boring.

Fortunately, what we got between Ginebra and Meralco was a downright thriller. It was a spectacle that needed an extra bag of popcorn and a couple of hypertension pills – especially in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter.

The final period began with Ginebra up by 17 points. They had been in control all game long. At this point, it was an Astros-Dodgers kind of a game seven.

Meralco, however, kept fighting. Allen Durham scored the first bucket of the fourth. They followed it up with several stops on the defensive end. But they failed to locate Ginebra’s rebounders, allowing them to get two offensive boards in the same play. Fortunately, for the Bolts, the Kings still couldn’t get anything to fall.

The Barangay had a chance to breakthrough when LA Tenorio drew a foul on Jared Dillinger and ended up at the free throw line. But with the fans expressing their love, with MVP chants erupting in the crowd, he surprisingly missed both free throws.

After an exchange of misses – which also included two botched freebies from Durham – Garvo Lanete sank a three-pointer to cut the Ginebra lead down to 12 points.

It was the closest that Meralco got since the halfway through the third quarter. But it was also the distance that a Ginebra force field protected until late in the game.

After a timeout, Justin Brownlee resumed his superhero duties for the Barangay. Brownlee cashed in Ginebra’s first two points of the quarter via free throws. On the next possession, following a Meralco turnover, he drilled in a top-of-the-key three-pointer to reinstate a 17-point advantage.

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The crowd goes absolutely berserk. If you were watching on TV, you’d see the cameras shaking. What’s crazy is that that’s how it felt live inside the stadium. The place was quivering.

Brownlee’s shot was terribly familiar to the 54 thousand fans inside the Philippine Arena. Most of them saw him make a similar shot in game six of the 2016 PBA Governors’ Cup Finals. The one that won it for the Barangay last year.

That moment cemented Justin’s reputation as a basketball hero. It’s just a matter of which character you see in him. If you’re a Ginebra fan, he’s your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. If you’re not, he’s Venom – the antihero.

Venom forced Meralco into a timeout. But he couldn’t take the fight out of them.

The Bolts came out of their huddle and executed a play that was drawn to perfection by Coach Norman Black. Cliff Hodge handed the ball off to Garvo Lanete, set a screen and rolled hard to the rim. Garvo hit him with the bounce pass and they got two points.

This started a string of made baskets from both teams. On Ginebra’s end, Kevin Ferrer made Hodge bite on pump fake before finishing with a most difficult layup he’s made in his young PBA career. Then Jared Dillinger knocked down a three. Then Scottie Thompson sank a rare step-in mid-range jumper.

Ginebra’s lead was 16 points at this point. But neither team had momentum swinging its way. It was neutral, and it worked for Ginebra since they had a pretty comfortable advantage.

That changed when Meralco ran the same play they earlier did with Hodge and Lanete. This time, however, it was Dillinger assuming the role of Garvo. And this time, the play ended in a Hodge dunk. Brownlee tried to get the two points back but instead lost the ball. Meralco picked it up and gave it to Durham who threw down a two-handed slam.

The lead was trimmed to 12 points again. And suddenly, the tides were dancing towards Meralco. At least that’s what it seemed for a moment. Because that 12-point barrier held strong. Joe Devance scored on two consecutive possessions, upping their lead to 16 points. Again.

There was just 5:18 remaining in the game. Science and mathematics were stacked against Meralco. But they believed in greater forces – the talents that they possess.

Chris Newsome came out of their timeout and attacked the paint hard. He got the layup to fall over Japeth Aguilar, drew the foul and completed a three-point play. Ginebra’s down to 13.

With less than five minutes to go, the Bolts forced Brownlee to a wayward shot and an ugly miss. This opened the door to what would have been (ironically) the biggest story of game seven – the emergence of Anjo Caram.

Barely used throughout the season, Anjo saw heavy minutes in the ultimate game of the season and played big. He averaged only 8.2 minutes through games 1 to 6. But in the last dance, he earned himself 19 minutes of action. He entered the scene a la Bill Murray on Space Jam saying: “perhaps I could be of some assistance.”

Durham threw a forward pass to Caram who eluded the defense of Thompson for the layup. Finally, the force field was broken. The deficit was down to 11. Then, after good defensive effort from Meralco, Anjo saw himself in another transition opportunity. This time, with Tenorio right in front of him.

Any other guy might have hit the brakes to wait for his teammates. But Caram was in his element. In that moment, he was unafraid. So he took it to the chest of LA and banked in the layup.

Lead down to nine, 94-85. Timeout, Ginebra.

It was in this moment that Meralco fans started believing a comeback was possible. It was also in this moment that all of us started believing that there were some Meralco fans inside the Philippine Arena. They were out numbered. They were Leonidas’ 300 battling a Persian army of thousands. But they made sure their voices were heard.

Coming off the timeout was the play that could have changed the outcome of series. Newsome slipped into the passing lane and stole a Japeth pass that was intended for LA. Chris rushed to their side of the court, engaging in a foot race with the two Ginebra players. He was a couple of steps ahead. But when he jumped up for the layup, that’s when Aguilar got to him and made the second-best block of the series (best is still Sol’s death-defying act in game four).

Meralco was lucky though because LA eventually turned the ball over. But luck didn’t side with them when Devance gave up a foul to stop transition. Coach Norman and the Bolts asked for a deliberate foul, saying that Jared was already ahead of the defense. They may have had a case but the refs ruled it a regular foul.

Meralco failed to score. On the other end, Tenorio was fouled by Caram. The Bolts contested the call again. And their argument may have had sense again because the replay looked like LA tripped. Nonetheless, the Gineral made both free throws. Back to an 11-point advantage with less than three minutes to go.

When LA sank the two shots, you could feel the tension ease up a little bit inside the arena. The Bolts still had time, but they were severely running out of it.

Durham got Meralco the quick bucket they needed. But Brownlee got the two points right back. Newsome got a layup. Devance made another hook shot. Ginebra and Meralco exchanged baskets again, something that Meralco obviously could not afford.

As this continued to develop, with time ticking down, the Ginebra fans started smelling champagne. They were beginning to feel a celebration coming. They began re-enacting the scene of the Barangay’s championship in 2016. They brought out the flashlights. But as Durham drew a foul and was set to take free throws, the fans were asked to turn the lights off. So instead, they began chanting. Gi…Ne…Bra.

Allen made both shots, trimming the deficit back down to nine points. He did all he could for his team – played 48 full minutes and finished with 26 points, 24 rebounds and nine assists.

But Meralco would commit an error that may have taken a toll on the game’s outcome. Hodge got a steal. He passed it to Newsome, whose sloppy pass to Durham was taken away by Thompson. The Bolts had 16 errors in game seven.

The Bolts got a break though when Thompson missed both his free throws. Eager to make up for his mistake, Newsome cleaned up after a Reynel Hugnatan missed three. 100-93, Ginebra.

He was fouled in the process but failed to make the free throw. But that wasn’t what hurt Meralco in that play. Hodge was whistle for a foul as he battle for rebounding position. It was his sixth so he had to say good night.

The foul put JDV at the free throw line. He missed both. Ginebra went 13-for-21 from the free throw line. Seven of those eight misses were in the fourth quarter. Five of those seven, in the last minute and a half. Those gave the Bolts chances to come back.

Fortunately, for Ginebra, Meralco wasn’t really able to make the most of those. Newsome missed what seemed like a good look for a layup. Brownlee got the board. JD tapped the ball loose. Meralco got control. Durham took it strong to the cup. He missed. He got the rebound. He took another try. He missed again. Ball was tapped out of bounds, Meralco retained possession.

It was an insane sequence that led to nothing. It had the entire Philippine Arena rocking. Fifty-four thousand people going bananas.

Then JD, playing his best game in the series, sank a trey bomb. His fifth of the game, upping his total to 20 points.

100-96. Deficit down to four. Timeout, Ginebra.

Imagine what happened to that stadium. At that point, everyone in attendance was just screaming and jumping. You couldn’t tell what they were screaming for anymore. Because Dillinger – Ginebra’s public enemy number one – just made a three and a group of guys in Ginebra shirts wore big smiles on their faces.

For a split second, fans forgot about cheering for their teams. They were just rooting for beautiful basketball.

LA attempted to deliver the dagger three but went offline. However, Japeth saved the day by getting the offensive board. Meralco was left with no other recourse but to foul Tenorio and send him to the line. LA had only missed one free throw from games 1 to 6, but he did go 0-for-2 earlier in the fourth quarter.

This time, the veteran guard split his charities to give Ginebra a five-point cushion. Like Dillinger, he reserved his best performance for the most important game. Tenorio averaged 11.2 points a night in the first six games. But in game seven, he poured in 26 points on five threes, while playing with a bone spur.

The Bolts had possession with 22 seconds left. They could only muster up one last attempt – a Lanete three-pointer that didn’t find its mark.

Ginebra grabbed the board and wasted away the clock until they heard the sweet sound that officially crowned them as back-to-back champions. The sound was a blend of the final buzzer and the cheers and chants of the diehards that travelled all the way to Bulacan to witness their success.

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Game seven of the 2017 PBA Governors’ Cup Finals brutally toyed with our emotions. But it did so in the best possible way. Thus creating a remarkable experience that over 54,000 people enjoyed live, and hundreds of thousands more felt through their screens.

Not all game sevens are made equal. We’re all lucky with what we got.

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