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By Jason Webb

Rain or Shine and Burger King didn’t need their twice-to-beat advantages to dispose of Barako Bull and Alaska. Our four protagonists on Friday won’t have any second chances to speak of, as it’s a one-game knockout for the final two quarterfinal slots.

A win-or-go home matchup is always a treat for fans but is really tough on coaches and players. It’s almost like a Game 7 in a best-of seven series the way this game will be played. There obviously is no tomorrow and coaches might even shorten their lineups to make sure their main men get enough minutes, just as they would do in a Game 7. All adjustments are to be done within the game and will really test the four coaching staffs. What’s tough is that we expect the teams to play this game like it’s their last, but in reality, it is just the first step to enter the playoffs.
Since it’s just a one-game affair, sadly luck can play a big part for the eventual winner and it is only the better team that day, rather than the better team, which will move forward.

COCA-COLA versus STA. LUCIA (Coke 88 SLR 79, Wed., May 6 ‘09)

Their last meeting is still fresh in the memory of both teams. It was Coca-Cola which really put a major dent in the automatic semifinal aspirations of Sta. Lucia. Although THE Realtors played them with a depleted lineup, missing Kelly Williams, Bitoy Omolon and Ryan Reyes, the win gives the Tigers a mental advantage against the Realtors.
The Realtors have looked solid all season but the loss of Williams really changed the identity of the Robles franchise. In Williams, they lost arguably the most athletic local and they also lost the one local that can go mano y mano with any of the athletic imports who don’t live at the post. Pressure will be on Omolon, Norman Gonzales, Dennis Espino and even Dennis Daa, to cover for the almost 40 minutes that the Realtors get from Williams.
Coca-Cola has looked solid the last couple of games, winning two must-win games on back-to-back playdates. There is a growing confidence in the Tigers since the arrival of James Penny. He has been the anchor on both the offensive and defensive end. More important than the numbers he has punched in, he has also made his teammates believe that they can win. He has brought confidence in a team that seemed to have forgotten how good they could be.

Both imports look to cancel each other out with their outputs so focus will be on which local lineup can deliver. Even without Williams, Sta. Lucia still owns a deeper bench than Coke. The Realtors main problem is consistency. Coke basically knows what it will get from two guys (Asi Taulava and Alex Cabagnot), the same can’t be said with SLR. Espino and Marlou Aquino will have to turn back the clock since they’re the only realistic matchup against Taulava. While Omolon, Joseph Yeo and Gonzales are the wildcards that coach Boyet Fernandez hopes will hit homeruns. Coke’s advantage seems to be their experience in tough games. Three-point shooting (to open up the lanes) and free-throw shooting (worst in the league) will be vital stats for Coke’s success.

It will be bitter sweet for coach Kenneth Duremdes if he can eliminate Sta. Lucia, having been previously traded by the Realtors to Coke.

PUREFOODS versus TALK ‘N TEXT (Purefoods 131, Talk N Text 121, March 1 ’09)

In my opinion, these are two teams owning the toughest draw to win a championship. Not only is their knockout game a battle of two of the better lineups in the league, the winner will also face a young but tough Rain or Shine squad in a best-of-3 quarterfinals. And their reward after that, a nice semifinal date with a red-hot Barangay Ginebra squad.

Their first outing should be no indication on how this knockout game will play out since it was actually their first assignments of the conference. Both teams have done their shopping spree to find the import they feel can help them win a championship.

Marquin Chandler is back for Purefoods and they responded with solid wins upon his arrival. But Purefoods had a major slide to end the classification phase, three straight losses for a team that looked like it was turning the corner on their way to a possible outright semifinal slot. A team that looks solid offensively on paper; they really put pressure on their defense by being the worst shooting team in the league. They take their wins when they can play tough defense taking three out of four when they limit their opponents under 90 while becoming a sub 0.500 team when they let their opponents pass 90.

Rashad Bell is the import of choice for Talk ‘N Text. A lot of teams were interested to pick him up to start the conference but Bell still had a commitment in another country last March. Now that he is here, he has not disappointed. He has added more firepower to the already heavy scoring team. The Tropang Texters lead the league once more in scoring but still continue to have their problems with defense being the only team to give up more than 110 points a game.

A game where both teams can match each other with both depth and talent, a ton of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of their superstars. Yes, big game players like James Yap, Kerby Raymundo, Jimmy Alapag and Mac-Mac Cardona will be looked at to save their teams on what could be an embarrassing early exit from this year’s Fiesta tourney.

But when you form teams this talented, it is not only the main stars that have to come up huge, it’s all the members in their little ways. I think that will be the key, which team can act like a team and be supportive of each other. In the end, the losing team will likely be sick in the stomach, feeling like they underachieved this conference.

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