MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Cliff Hodge notched a new career-high 32 points and the Meralco Bolts barged into the Finals for the first time in franchise history after taking down sister team TNT KaTropa, 94-88, in the 2016 PBA Governors' Cup semifinals on Monday, October 3 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Meralco finished off TNT in just 4 games, playing well enough in the endgame in games 3 and 4 to seal the deal.
The Bolts entered the Finals for the first time since joining the league in 2010. This run to the Finals is a huge turnaround for Meralco, which notched a forgettable 1-10 record in this season's Philippine Cup a mere 8 months ago.
"I'm really happy for the team, for the players," said head coach Norman Black, who returns to the Finals for the first time since he won a triple crown in the 2013 Philippine Cup with none other than Talk 'N Text.
He joined Meralco in 2014, taking over from Ryan Gregorio.
"I think we've come a long way since the first conference where we were really pretty bad. I'm happy we're finishing the year on a good note. Obviously it's not over yet, we still have a championship series to play but I cannot be more proud of our players tonight for the effort they put in."
Hodge picked the perfect night for a career game as he poured in 12 of his total points in the payoff period. He officially broke his career high on a huge 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it a 77-70 Meralco lead with 5:02 left in the game.
After Ranidel De Ocampo pulled TNT to within 85-88 with his own big 3, Hodge went for the dagger with a triple from the right corner, 91-85, with 49.6 on the clock.
Veteran guard Jimmy Alapag, playing against his old team after coming out of retirement to offer wisdom and leadership to Meralco, fittingly sealed the victory with a free throw and the final tally.
"What a game by Cliff Hodge. That was unbelievable," Black said. "We needed every single bit of his energy, we needed every single bit of his production. That just goes to show that he's really grown as a player. Hopefully he'll start to get some recognition for that as we go forward."
Import Allen Durham, whom Black referred to as his team's "cornerstone" this conference, had 19 points and 16 rebounds. Reynel Hugnatan, the hero of game 3, finished with 16 points along with 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
Chris Newsome tallied 15 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and a block.
TNT, which dominated the eliminations with a 10-1 record for the top seed in the playoffs, struggled down the stretch after star guard Jayson Castro got thrown out for incurring his second flagrant foul penalty 1 – both against Newsome.
Castro, who finished with 25 points and scored 8 straight before he got ejected with still 2:20 remaining, slapped Newsome on the face in the first quarter and then elbowed the rookie in the fourth.
De Ocampo had 15 points and 7 rebounds, while import Mychal Ammons settled for a series-low 10 points with 9 rebounds. Troy Rosario chipped in 10 markers and 8 boards as well.
Meralco will face the winner of the other semifinal matchup between San Miguel and Barangay Ginebra in a best-of-7 series. The other semis will play a deciding game 5 on Tuesday, October 4.
Meralco (94): Hodge 32, Durham 19, Hugnatan 16, Newsome 15, Nabong 4, Alapag 3, Amer 2, Faundo 2, Uyloan 1, Guevarra 0.
TNT (88): Castro 25, De Ocampo 15, Ammons 10, Rosario 10, Tautuaa 8, Fonacier 6, Williams 6, Madanly 5, Reyes 3, Rosales 0.
Quarter scores: 18-23, 40-44, 64-61, 94-88.