by Jonas Terrado
Game Today (Smart Araneta Coliseum)
6:30 p.m. – Magnolia vs NLEX
The Magnolia Hotshots Pambansang Manok and NLEX Road Warriors open their best-of-seven semifinal series in the PBA Philippine Cup eager to draw first blood in their goal of claiming an elusive finals berth.
Game 1, set for 6:30 p.m. at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, will witness a Magnolia squad aiming to draw closer toward making the title series after consecutive semifinal exits last season, and an up-and-coming NLEX side looking to reach new heights after moving past the quarterfinals for the first time in franchise history.
While much of the attention will center on the individual matchup between Magnolia’s Paul Lee and NLEX rookie Kiefer Ravena – star players Road Warriors coach Yeng Guiao believe carry distinct similarities – both teams are going to parade talented roster for the series.
Magnolia coach Chito Victolero also has Ian Sangalang, Mark Barroca, Marc Pingris, Justin Melton and Rome dela Rosa while Guiao’s NLEX is also powered by Kevin Alas, Michael Miranda, Larry Fonacier, JR Quinahan, Alex Mallari and Cyrus Baguio.
The Hotshots are in their fourth consecutive semifinals berth, but are still seeking their first finals berth since completing a rare grand slam in the 2014 Governors’ Cup as the San Mig Super Coffee Mixers and handled by now-Ginebra coach Tim Cone.
Known last season as the Star Hotshots, Magnolia blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads in a seven-game loss to Cone’s Ginebra in the Philippine Cup, fell to San Miguel 3-1 in the Commissioner’s Cup and got swept in three games by Meralco in the Governors’ Cup.
Hunger is obviously visible within the Magnolia camp.
“Siguro, it’s about time,” said Lee after Magnolia’s 86-79 win over GlobalPort in Tuesday’s quarterfinals. “Okay na siguro yung experience namin as a group. Kumbaga, yung preparation namin last season, maganda yun para sa season na ‘to. Nakabalik na kami ng semis, pero hindi pa yun ang end goal namin.”
The same can be felt at NLEX after years of on-and-off performances since its PBA entry in 2014 and dealing with a 13-game skid in-between the first two conferences since Guiao moved from Rain or Shine.