Grand slam opportunity opens for SMB

SMB coach Leo Austria (right) with import Chris McCullough during the team's championship victory against the TNT KaTropa. (SMB)

By Joel Orellana

Thirty years ago, the Beermen bannered by the legendary Ramon Fernandez completed a rare hat trick in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) by sweeping three conferences.

Last Friday, San Miguel Beer gained a golden opportunity to repeat the feat after beating TNT KaTropa in Game 6 of their Commissioner’s Cup best-of-seven finals series for their second title this season and 27th overall.

With that, Beermen head coach Leo Austria has no choice but to face the challenge that only elite mentors like Virgilio “Baby” Dalupan, Tommy Manotoc, Norman Black and Tim Cone were able to accomplish in the history of the league.

“There’s no other way but to target the grand slam,” said Austria minutes after bagging his eighth PBA crown, tying Chot Reyes at fifth spot in the all-time list.

“But again, it’s one game at a time. We blew that chance in 2017. Every team is slowly catching up in terms of talent and training. I hope we can get a good import for the next conference,” the 1985 Rookie of the Year added.

Dalupan was the first coach to complete a grand slam in 1976 with Crispa and Manotoc repeating it with the Redmanizers in 1983.

Then, Black did the trick in 1989 while Cone became the first coach to have two grand slams under his belt, one with Alaska in 1996 and one with San Mig Coffee (now Magnolia) in 2013.

Austria could be headed to that exclusive club but he knows it’s easier said than done and he hopes his players have learned their lessons in the conference that had passed.

San Miguel Beer’s journey in the mid-season conference was not easy as the team was one loss away from getting eliminated.

But it salvaged the No. 7 spot and overcame the twice-to-beat advantage of NorthPort in the quarterfinal stage before outlasting the young Rain or Shine squad in the semifinals to gain the right to face the prolific Terrence Jones, who led the KaTropa to the top spot in the eliminations with a 10-1 win-loss card.

The Beermen kicked off the series on a sour note as Jones made his dominance felt, finishing with 41 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists and three blocks in the KaTropa’s emphatic 109-96 victory.

San Miguel Beer tied the series in Game 2 when Terrence Romeo, who emerged as the Finals Most Valuable Player, delivered clutch baskets to send the game to overtime while import Chris McCullough put the finishing touches to the 127-125 victory.

The KaTropa waged a massive endgame rally to run away with a 115-105 victory in Game 3 only to falter in Game 4, 101-104, as McCullough played his heart out to score 27 points and grab 22 rebounds.

San Miguel Beer found itself huffing and puffing in Game 5, but McCullough engineered a furious comeback and towed the Beermen from 16 points down in the fourth period to a 99-94 win, which served as the turning point of the series.

“It was really a tough series for us. We know how TNT is determined to win the championship. They really wanted it badly,” Austria said.

“And after we lost the first game in the finals, we knew we just need a few adjustment and we can beat them. Everybody stepped up and our experience prevailed.”

Austria said their mission is not yet over.

They still have the Governor’s Cup to win – and a rare grand slam to complete.

#SMBgrandslam #LeoAustria #BeermenChampions3x #threepeat

p: wjg