Alaska coach Jeffrey Cariaso said the prospect of seeing the end of the fabled franchise’s PBA stint was both a challenge and motivation prior to forcing NLEX to a rubber match in their Governors’ Cup quarterfinal matchup.
Fighting to extend their last dance, the Aces made an inspiring comeback from a 16-point deficit in the second quarter before taking control of the match in the final two periods for a 93-79 win Wednesday, March 16 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Cariaso, who for weeks had kept stressing the importance of “staying in the moment,” admitted that there were mixed emotions over the likelihood of the Aces bidding goodbye, especially with the Road Warriors carrying a twice-to-beat bonus.
“We didn’t want it to be our last game,” Cariaso said. “What makes it harder is that compared to the announcement (of Alaska’s departure), we are kinda closer to seeing what could possibly be the end. So that in itself is a challenge and a motivation on its own.
“So we tried to use that to motivate us even more, for us to focus even more, for us to be ready even more, and to play together even more. So hats off to the guys. Everyone who stepped on the court came out ready. The players were cheering for each other, and I think that’s a big difference. That’s a factor.”
The Aces got plenty of contributors in the victory, first with Jeron Teng putting up 16 points and six rebounds and Abu Tratter posting 12 points and 10 rebounds with his play on both shaded lanes.
But the bigger contributors were some of Alaska’s bench players, namely guard Mike Tolomia and center Yousef Taha.
Tolomia, who rarely saw action in the eliminations, came through with all 10 of his points in the third that saw Alaska pull away despite a low-scoring affair while Taha put up nine points and 12 rebounds.
Their timely efforts allowed Alaska to win even if new import Mark St. Fort had a pedestrian debut.
St. Fort posted 17 points and 14 rebounds in his first game since replacing Olu Ashaolu, whose chronic injuries prompted the Aces to make a risky decision to make the switch.
“It's a little difficult,” Cariaso said. “We know that bringing in an import at this time was a risk. And it still is a risk. But I think at that point, we just really had no choice.”
“It was really hard to replace him. But I think in this regard, you have to weigh out the fact that his chronic injuries prevented him from being the Olu that we know. So the risk there is bringing in a new, healthier guy.
“But again, you know, jet lag, and chemistry was still not there. And, you know, he's only been in the Philippines for four days.”
The import from The Bahamas and the rest of the Aces are keen on putting up a better showing as Alaska once again fights for dear life in Saturday’s knockout game.
“If we can improve ourselves from tonight, I think we have a good chance,” said Cariaso. “Guys are gonna come in confident, but not overconfident.”