Powerhouse Cafe France put itself back in a familiar position going to the 2016 PBA D-League Aspirants Cup playoffs and seems to have an easier route for another title run starting with a quarterfinals showdown against the eighth seed—either Mindanao Aguilas or Wang’s Basketball.
But Bakers coach Egay Macaraya is not one to pick a preferred opponent, knowing they can not afford to let their guards down.
“Kahit sino kalaban,” he said following CafeFrance’s 83-74 victory over injury-riddled Phoenix Petroleum on Thursday night at the Ynares Sports Arena in Pasig City, enabling the Bakers to finish the single-round eliminations on top with a 7-1 mark.
Armed with a twice-to-beat advantage, the Bakers will be the heavy favorites to prevail either against the Aguilas or the Couriers in the quarterfinal matchup next week.
Macaraya, however, refused to be swayed, saying: “There is now way na may advantage ka. You still have to play 40 minutes of basketball and we don’t know what will happen. The bottom-line is we will just prepare kahit sino ang makalaban namin and hope for the best na maglalaro ang lahat ng players ko at that time.”
With the Accelerators frontline decimated with the absence of injured center Raymar Jose, CafeFrance Congolese center Rodrigue Ebondo frolicked in the lane all-game long, registering a dominant double-double outing of 26 points and 19 rebounds, eight of them coming on the offensive end.
Veterans Mar Villahermosa (13 markers), Carl Cruz (11 points and eight rebounds), Samboy de Leon (11 markers) and Mon Abundo (10 points and four assists) also did their ample share to help the Bakers hold off the late-charging Accelerators, who dropped to third spot with a 5-2 mark.
But more than the Bakers’ offensive production, it was their sustained defensive intensity that left Macaraya beaming no end.
“In our past eight games, we always focused on playing defense and we proved it today. The best scoring team in the D-League, medyo maliit ang score ngayon,” he noted.
While wingman Alfrancis Tamsi tallied a team-high 17 points for Phoenix, star forward Mac Belo hardly made his presence felt, coming up with just six points on 2-of-6 shooting from the field in almost 22 minutes of play.
Making matters worse for the Accelerators, top guards Mike Tolomia and Ed Daquioag combined for just 14 markers on a horrendous 5-of-17 clip, no thanks to the Bakers’ stymieing defense.
“As I have said sa mga bata kanina, at stake ang number 1 spot. Good motivation and morale(-boosting victory) for the quarterfinals. Seeing lang ‘to but the boys played well and they didn’t want to lose. I give credit to them,” said Macaraya, who is hoping they could be in full strength in the playoffs.
“I just hope everybody is ready to play. Marami pa rin kasi laming injuries. Si Paul (Zamar) may sprained ankle. Pati si JK (John Carlo Casino). I just wish na lahat maging healthy in the quarterfinals,” he said. – By Jerome Lagunzad
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