MANILA, Philippines - The Air21 Express took full advantage of a Yeng Guiao-less Rain or Shine Elasto Painters and trounced them, 103-96, on Tuesday, May 20 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum to open their 2014 PLDT Home Telpad PBA Governors' Cup campaign on a high note.
With Guiao currently abroad and unable to be along the sidelines during his team's first game this conference, the Express pounced right away, banking on their solid 3-point shooting (12-of-25) and their dominance on the boards (54-36) to register their first win of the conference.
Their import Dominique Sutton, 27, led the way with 25 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists, including an 11-point first quarter outburst that allowed the Express to promptly set the tone of the match.
He received sufficient support from the locals with Asi Taulava dropping another double-double performance of 19 points and 14 rebounds.
Joseph Yeo and Aldrech Ramos provided 18 and 11 markers, respectively as well.
Air21 kept the Painters at a safe distance with double-digit leads, which soon ballooned to 17 early in the second half.
However, Rain or Shine, who was temporarily led by assistant coach Caloy Garcia, forced turnover after turnover on Air21 for a total of 25 miscues and milked 25 points off of that. They managed to trim the double-digit deficit to 97-91 with 1:37 left in the game thanks to import Arizona Reid's fastbreak lay-up off a Gabe Norwood steal on the other end.
If this was the old Air21 that was perennially bullied by all other teams, they may have caved under the pressure. But this is a newer, much more motivated, and semifinal-experienced Air21 team.
They showed a calm and collected demeanor amid Rain or Shine's furious endgame rally. They defended well and sank free throws steadily as the clock wound down, ensuring that no comeback by the Painters would be successful.
"It's a good start for us," remarked Air21 head coach Franz Pumaren. "Like what I told the players coming out of the locker room, we should consider every game as a playoff game."
For the Painters, it was former PBA Best Import Reid who led all scorers with 20 points to go with 12 boards, 5 assists and two steals.
While Beau Belga and Jeff Chan chipped in 14 and 12 points, respectively.
This win over Rain or Shine isn't as simple as going 1-0. For the Express, the implications are far greater.
For one, this is Air21's first victory over Rain or Shine in franchise history. That alone is indication enough of the 180-degree turn the Express is experiencing.
But most important of all, this game is a crucial first step to building on what Air21 has achieved in the past Commissioner's Cup and taking on a new tag as a contender.
"We wanna pile up on the wins already. We don't wanna let our fans down and let our team down with what we achieved last conference," explained the veteran Taulava. "We wanna continue on our momentum and build on what we started."
Taulava and Pumaren agree that their incredible journey last conference and their semifinal finish has definitely changed the mentality, attitude, and atmosphere within the team.
"Once you taste success, it's so hard to let that go," Taulava said.
And that achievement is something Air21 will hold on to for dear life as they hope to complete their turnaround this conference and become an entirely different team.
"Our goal right now is to make sure that what we achieved last conference is not a fluke," said Pumaren. "We want to establish ourselves as contenders now."
Air 21 103 - Sutton 25, Taulava 19, Yeo 18, Ramos 11, Borboran 8, Villanueva 6, Camson 6, Jaime 4, Atkins 3, Cardona 3, Poligrates 0, Burtscher 0.
Rain or Shine 96 - Reid 20, Belga 14, Chan 12, Lee 11, Norwood 11, Nuyles 7, Ibanes 6, Arana 5, Almazan 4, Rodriguez 4, Uyloan 2, Tiu 0, Tang 0.
Quarter scores: 33-24, 62-50, 85-73, 103-96.