The heartbreaking decision of Alaska team owner Wilfred Uytengsu to bid the PBA goodbye at the end of this season’s Governors’ Cup has obviously lit a fire among the players and coaches after back-to-back wins to begin their farewell tour.
Alaska may have produced the most emotional victory in recent memory Saturday, Feb. 19 when it erased a 20-point deficit in the third quarter to beat Terrafirma, 102-97, at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Led by Jeron Teng and a trio of unsung heroes in rookies Allyn Bulanadi, RK Ilagan and Alec Stockton, the Aces completed the rally that seemed unimaginable after a lousy third quarter that enabled the Dyip to take a huge lead.
It may go down as the most memorable triumph at this point in Jeffrey Cariaso’s tenure as coach of the team that he helped win the Grand Slam in 1996.
Cariaso has repeatedly said that the focus remains on trying to focus much on the business at hand which is to keep Alaska as one of the top teams in the current tourney.
At 5-2 and holding third spot behind unbeaten leader Magnolia Pambansang Manok and Meralco, there is hope that Alaska may put itself in a good position to produce a fitting swan song.
But Cariaso admitted that there are times he reflects on the end for the team that had a huge part in his life’s work.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s some thought because it’s always in the back of your head. Hindi siya nawawala,” Cariaso said before again stressing the focus on what’s next on the task board.
“I always try to catch myself and live the moment. Just stay within what we’re doing. In regards of how we do things, the way we watch video, the way we scout, the way we coaches discuss game plans, hindi siya nagbabago, pareho pa rin.
“It’s being professional and really just staying in the moment and preparing for kung sino man yung next game natin,” he added.
Alaska is actually on a three-game winning streak which started before Uytengsu brought the sad news.
Olu Ashaolu does not have the gaudy numbers some of his fellow imports have, but he has proved to be a good fit for the Aces on both ends, as evident with his play against Terrafirma import Antonio Hester.
Teng played as if he was back in college for La Salle, dropping his first 30-point game as a pro that capped off by scoring six in a row to complete the searing Alaska rally.
Cariaso said that the scoring output was not the only thing Teng contributed.
“He was ready. He was prepared. When we put him at the spots where he was comfortable, and we allowed him to kinda go a little bit. Good game by JT — and it's on both ends, he was also tremendous defensively.”
Bulanadi and Ilagan, college teammates at San Sebastian, helped sparked the rally with the former scoring 10 and the latter providing intangibles which netted him a +17 rating, meaning that Alaska outscored Terrafirma by 17 when he’s on the floor.
Stockton, on the other hand, showed defensive intensity which prompted Cariaso to put him in situations during the endgame.
“I’m really happy that they were able to play together at the pro level because they're so familiar with each other. When they're on the court, they work hard, they give their best, and you can see how close they are. You can see that camaraderie that they have regardless of Allyn being with us for two weeks. Hindi siya nawawala,” he said.
“And then, Alec is a fighter. Hindi yun nawawala sa kanya. He's always been that tough, hard-nosed player. He's really tough mentally. Bihira yun sa young player where you come in mentally strong, mentally tough. And he brings that. I like the way those three played tonight.”
Sustaining its form amid the difficult times for the franchise will put Alaska in a greater challenge going into next week when it plays NLEX on Feb. 23 and Meralco, one of the league’s title contenders, on Feb. 26.
Matches with Phoenix Super LPG on March 3 could be a tricky situation while the final elims assignment will see Alaska going up against Magnolia Pambansang Manok in a big acid test.
That also explains why Cariaso is insistent on keeping his focus one step at a time.
“Like I told them, we are just staying in the moment and living in the moment. Today again, we passed another test and we have to be ready for our next test,” he said.