February 28, 2024

GUTS AND GLORY | After string of premature exits, is Magnolia ripe to conquer PBA throne anew?

GUTS AND GLORY | After string of premature exits, is Magnolia ripe to conquer PBA throne anew?
Art by Royce Nicdao

With seven wins in their first seven games of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup, the Magnolia Hotshots will be the first team to qualify for the playoffs. But that’s far from being the target of coach Chito Victolero and his wards. 

With the field currently wide open as usual favorites TNT Tropang Giga, San Miguel Beermen, and defending champion Barangay Ginebra San Miguel have missing pieces, it’s the best time for another team to swoop in and claim the championship.

The Hotshots are hoping this will be their time again.

The last time they won a championship was in the 2018 Governors’ Cup, where they were led by import Romeo Travis. This was the last time a team outside of TNT, SMB, and Ginebra won a championship. Magnolia reached the finals twice after that, losing a painful 4-3 series to San Miguel in the 2019 Philippine Cup and a 4-1 decision against TNT in the 2021 Philippine Cup.

The Hotshots had a lot of strong conferences, especially in the elimination rounds. But they somehow always came up short. There were injuries and import issues, including losing Mike Harris to a concussion in a do-or-die Game 5 against the Meralco Bolts in the 2021 Governors’ Cup.

There were many opinions regarding their inability to win a championship. Aside from the tough field, some said their defensive intensity was too punishing on their players’ bodies. Others said their unwillingness to drastically change their lineup prevents them from taking it to another level. Others felt gritty defense was no longer the best way to the crown.

However, instead of succumbing to external opinions, Victolero doubled down. He made his team play harder and play more. While other teams paraded new recruits, the Hotshots refused to even sign up a rookie, choosing to keep their core intact. Aside from trading for Abu Tratter and Dave Murrell, all they did personnel-wise was scoop up Jed Mendoza and Joseph Eriobu from their 3x3 squad.

They played their games during the PBA on Tour like they were regular season matches. They swept the tournament and have not tasted a loss since March.

In terms of gameplay, it’s still defense-first for the Hotshots. They lead the league in points allowed at only 86.4 per game. While they are only third in steals at 9.0 per game, they top the PBA in points from turnovers at 22.6 per game. 

Opposing guards already know they’d be in for a fight coming into a match versus Magnolia. Opposing bigs also know they should be wary of ambush steals that the likes of Jio Jalalon and Mark Barroca are masters of.

They picked the perfect import in the young Tyler Bey. While still a bit rough around the edges when it comes to offense, his tenacity and intensity are ideal for the Hotshots. He does not need many touches. He makes 58% of his shots. He is a high-leaping rebounder and gets 2.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. 

More than the numbers though, it is his willingness to learn that has been amazing, as Victolero said the youngest import in the field can still get better.

In their last win against the Beermen, the Hotshots once again showed why they are still undefeated. Even with Paul Lee rolling his ankle, the squad still took care of business behind the 31 points and 21 rebounds of Bey and the 14 points of James Laput, who is an early candidate to becoming this season’s Most Improved Player.

RELATED STORY: Much-improved Magnolia center James Laput reveals how he gets pushed to higher level

The scary thing about the Hotshots? This is not yet their best.

Calvin Abueva could return by December 23, but he’ll definitely see action next year, and this will only add more intensity to the team. The Beast, who averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds, in the last Governors’ Cup is taking his time getting back to 100% healthy, as his teammates are playing well enough to buy him more time. 

The lesson here? 

Magnolia trusted what it was building. Even with the frustrations, even with the many times the team fell short of a championship, Victolero and company stuck to their guns. Now, it might be their time again.

PS: 

There’s a lot of talk on social media about a no-call during a supposed eight-second halfcourt violation against Magnolia versus SMB. The Beermen complained about the call but the rule has been clear since 2021: The shot clock has to reach 15 with the ball still in the backcourt for it to be deemed a violation.

(PM)