With prolific import Henry Walker firing on all cylinders, new-look NLEX turned back Blackwater on Saturday 96-90 to set its title bid in motion in the 2016 PBA Governors Cup at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The 6-foot-4 Walker, 28, fired a personal pro league-high of 44 points, 24 of them coming in a fiery showing in the opening frame that enabled the Road Warriors to take control early on before holding off the Elite’s comeback bid in the closing minutes.
“We started really strong in the first quarter especially Henry Walker. It really started (to get) our game (going),” beamed NLEX coach Boyet Fernandez of the former NBA journeyman who previously suited up for Alaska in the same season-ending conference in 2014.
Guard Kevin Alas tallied 12 points, five rebounds and four assists while Mac Baracael, one of three new faces on the Road Warriors’ fold, and veteran Jonas Villanueva chipped in at least 11 markers, chiefly backstopping Walker’s sustained offensive brilliance.
Eric Dawson, another ‘balik’-import, dished out an all-around performance of 27 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and two steals but his Blackwater local support struggled early on before staging a fourth-quarter fightback that eventually went down the drain.
Gunner Carlo Lastimosa tried hard to keep the Elite in the thick of the fight as he tallied 10 of his 16 points in the stretch but their repeated rallies were kept in check by Walker’s timely buckets, highlighted by his sixth and final triple over Dawson for a 93-81 cushion going to the final two minutes.
Although his wards “just played it around in the fourth quarter,” Fernandez was still pleased with the Road Warriors’ impressive start that set the tone while controlling the emotionally-charged Elite, who paid tribute to the late Gilbert Bulawan prior to the tip-off by retiring his Blackwater No. 11 jersey.
“I told the players we really have to start strong and match the energy of Blackwater. I thought they’d get back that inspiration from Gilbert to play hard and start strong,” said Fernandez. “We’re a new team in terms of personnel. We just have to learn from that.” – By Jerome Lagunzad
NLEX (96) – Walker 44, Alas 12, Baracael 12, Villanueva J. 11, Taulava 5, Soyud 4, Forrester 3, Lanete 3, Villanueva E. 2, Akl 0, Khobuntin 0, Monfort 0, Reyes 0.
BLACKWATER (90) – Dawson 27, Lastimosa 16, Cortez 14, Sena 8, Sumang 8, Canada 5, Pascual 5, Gamalinda 4, Dela Cruz 2, Erram 1, Cervantes 0.
Quarterscores: 31-16, 53-39, 78-68, 96-90