Coach Yeng Guiao has been coaching PBA teams for 25 years. That’s a quarter of a century, longer than Kiefer Ravena has been alive. That sort of experience gives you a roadmap. He’s past panicking when his teams struggle, he says, because once you’ve learned how to solve a problem, it’s just a matter of applying the solution to a new situation. What doesn’t get old, though, is the satisfaction of success.
“No matter how many times I’ve been to the semis, bringing a new franchise there is special,” he said before the game. “No matter how long you’ve been in the business, when you’re working for a new franchise that’s in its development phase, what is special to the organization becomes special for you personally. It becomes a legacy you can leave behind after years of service. It’s a personal validation of your hard work.”
After the Road Warriors’ pre-game meeting, Kiefer Ravena said a little prayer at the crucifix hanging outside the dugout. “We have a chance to do something that’s never been done before for this franchise,” he said. “That’s enough motivation for everybody.”
The Alaska Aces took an early lead, but by the last three minutes of the first quarter, the younger team had caught up. NLEX kept the lead during the second quarter, but Alaska stayed at their heel. When Alaska tied the game, Guiao brought team captain Fonacier back in the game.
Fonacier had expected a difficult game. “I’m cautious,” he said while warming up. “This is a dangerous game.” The veteran player had a different routine that day, watching home videos of his nine-year-old son Liam playing at a basketball camp. “That’s my inspiration,” said Fonacier, cracking a smile.
He was right to expect a challenge from Alaska. The Aces fought hard to stay alive in the tournament, with impressive performances from Calvin Abueva, Ping Exciminiano, JVee Casio and Kevin Racal. Late in the fourth quarter, Alaska led, 83-80.
But then Mike Miranda and Kevin Alas happened. Miranda’s triple and freebies and Alas’ clutch layup gave NLEX a 7-0 run, taking back the lead to book the Road Warriors their first semis berth in franchise history.
JR Quiñahan had fouled out, but not before posting 16 points and 5 boards. When it became clear that NLEX would win, he stood up facing the crowd, held his arms out and smiled as if to say: “Alam na.” When the buzzer rang, the team erupted into shouts underneath the scoreboard: 87-83.
Quiñahan’s children ran up and down the steps, Raul Soyud’s girlfriend cheered in her pilot’s uniform, and the social media-savvy Ravena siblings Thirdy and Dani took out their phones to post celebratory messages.
In the dugout, players of the game Kevin Alas and Mike Miranda were greeted with cheers, as their teammates took selfies. Guiao, the image of intensity during games, was all smiles. “We have made history tonight,” he told his players.
“Tonight we celebrate, but it’s back to work after this,” Guiao said. “We’re on an adventure. Let’s see how far we can go.”
Photos from NLEX Road Warriors