B-MEG had an easy time taking Macmac Cardona out of the game Wednesday.
The rest of Meralco proved to be another matter, however, and the Llamados went through the wringer before fashioning a 95-85 victory that sent their PBA Commissioner's Cup quarterfinals series into a deciding game at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
Marc Pingris, Denzel Bowles and Josh Urbiztondo set the tone for the Llamados in the highly physical confrontation while PJ Simon took the lead in the mop-up operations as they levelled the best-of-three duel at one game apiece and set up the rubber on Easter Sunday also at the Big Dome.
"We established our physical presence early and I think that was the key," said B-Meg head coach Tim Cone moments after the victory that avenged their 81-103 loss in the opener last Sunday.
Cardona got thrown out just 70 seconds into the game, but it still took B-Meg a lot of doing as it had to withstand the loss of Bowles to fouls with still 2:03 left and Meralco's gritty fightback.
The Bolts seemingly have the momentum on their side after charging back to within eight from as much as a 26-point deficit.
Chris Ross' layup off his own steal even trimmed the deficit to just 85-91, before B-Meg's defense kicked in anew and held Meralco scoreless in the final 70 seconds.
Simon and Pingris, meanwhile, canned a charity each before Simon practically finished the job with a fastbreak layup, only 37 ticks remaining.
"The game was in doubt until PJ's breakaway layup," admitted Cone. "It was anybody's game until
then. They really did a great job of coming back."
Sunday's deciding game should be no different from the most recent one that netted the protagonists a total 54 fouls called, almost double of Game 1's 29.
"I was telling my players, this was the easy game," , stated Cone. "The next one is gonna be harder. I think they will play really physical, we'll see. I think they're gonna respond as well."
Following their opening loss, Cone lashed out at the referees and promptly received a call from PBA commissioner Chito Salud. He did not delve on the officiating Wednesday, but warned of another tough match Sunday.
"It will be a matter of who gets out first. That's gonna be the battle on Sunday," stressed Cone.
Pingris, who saw just 11 minutes of action in Game 1, played 29 Wednesday and scored a team-high 21 points on top of nine rebounds. It was his highest scoring output over the last three seasons.
"He played limited minutes in Game 1 because we felt going small was the way to come back and it did bring us back," said Cone of Pingris.
"But this time we got him in the gameplan and he was awesome. He just has great character to play that hard, to play that well. He was a big presence in all facets of the game. We found a role for him, something he could hang on and do and he played it to the hilt."
Pingris actually started out guarding Cardona, but Urbiztondo made his teammate's job easier by
first inciting Cardona to a technical foul before the prolific guard got ejected by slamming his
hand on Bowles while they were sprawled under the Meralco basket.
"When you hit somebody in the face... it was the right call. It certainly wasn't our fault," noted Cone.
Bowles added 20 and 11, with Simon and Urbiztondo combining for 28 points.
Earl Barron did not buy a single early basket in the face of Bowles' defense but still finished with a personal conference-high 39 points and 18 rebounds, with 17 of his points coming in the third period that brought Meralco within 68-76.
Sol Mercado added 11 of his 18 in that period and Cardona's main replacement, Mark Macapagal, seven of his nine that whittled B-Meg's lead that stood at 26 points twice, the last at 40-14, and 52-29 at the half.
B-Meg built up the cushion it would need later on by opening up with a 17-2 lead, Meralco's lone
basket courtesy of Bowles' goal tending on Cardona's drive that led to them being tangled up
B-MEG 95 - Pingris 21, Bowles 20, Simon 15, Urbiztondo 13, Devance 10, Yap 8, Intal 4, Barroca 2, Reavis 2, De Ocampo 0.
MERALCO 85 - Barron 39, Mercado 18, Macapagal 9, Taulava 7, Ross 4, Timberlake 2, Yee 2, Aljamal 2, Cardona 2, Borboran 0, Hugnatan 0.
Quarterscores: 32-13, 52-29, 76-68, 95-85