SPORTING CHANCEJoaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) – October 25, 2020 – 12:00am

It won’t be the same Manila Clasico between Barangay Ginebra and Magnolia in the PBA Philippine Cup at the Angeles University Foundation gym tonight because of the absence of a live audience. Fans have always been a big part of the 197 encounters since 1988. Who can forget the crowd of 20,598 that witnessed the battle at MOA in January 2104 or the throng of 24,883 that packed the Big Dome for Game 7 of the Philippine Cup semifinals in February 2014 or the multitude of 21,808 that trooped to MOA for the Christmas Day duel in 2015?

But in the bubble, fans will be accommodated only through the virtual audience app set up by the PBA. It’ll still be business as usual on the court and action will be as intense as every Clasico in the past. So far, Magnolia has the edge in wins over Ginebra, 102-95 but Ginebra has won the last four meetings dating back to the Commissioner’s Cup last season. In those last four games, Ginebra held Magnolia to an average of 80.75 points, underscoring coach Tim Cone’s emphasis on defense.

A win for Magnolia could be a turning point for coach Chito Victolero’s squad. The Hotshots are reeling from three straight setbacks with only a win to show in five outings. But to bring down unbeaten Ginebra would be a momentum changer. Ginebra has won four in a row despite LA Tenorio and Japeth Aguilar not starting in any game. Not a single Ginebra player is averaging at least 20 points and in the top 10 scoring ladder. But Ginebra is No. 2 in offense (99 points), No. 1 in field goal percentage (47.7 percent), No. 1 in three-point field goal percentage (41.4 percent), No. 1 in assists (26) and No. 2 in points allowed (88.3). Magnolia, on the other hand, is No. 1 in steals (9.2), No. 1 in turnover points (22.8) and No. 1 in opponents’ turnovers (19.4).

It’ll be a defense-oriented clash for sure with Magnolia’s backcourt attack dogs disrupting Ginebra’s offense and Ginebra’s stifling halfcourt defense making the Hotshots bleed for every point. Expect Magnolia to play a fast pace and Ginebra to slow it down to a grind. Key pieces will be missing from both lineups. Greg Slaughter and Marc Pingris won’t be around but the opposing coaches are ready to rumble without them. Players making their Clasico debuts are Jared Dillinger, Jackson Corpuz, Aris Dionisio, Chris Banchero, Kent Salado, Jerrick Balanza and Arvin Tolentino. Rafi Reavis and Joe De Vance have played for both sides in the past so they know what’s at stake isn’t just a better spot in the standings but also pride for their fans.

An interesting sidelight is the possible matchup between former teammates Corpuz and Prince Caperal.  They used to slug it out at practice with Kia and playing physical is always something they bring to the table. Cone has alternated Caperal and Aguilar at center but sometimes, plays them together with Caperal sliding to the four spot. Corpuz is a steady complement to center Ian Sangalang and a sturdy no-frills defender. Who will defend Stanley Pringle and Paul Lee is a question mark. Rome de la Rosa or Banchero may be tapped to shadow Pringle while Aljon Mariano or Scottie Thompson may match up against Lee. How to defend the pick-and-roll will be critical as both Pringle and Lee are masters in executing the play.

De Vance said to beat Magnolia, Ginebra has to crack the Hotshots pressure, handle the ball screen and control the boards. Sangalang said the keys to win are to pressure Ginebra in the backcourt, rebound and stay focused. “As much as we depend on our sixth man, the NSD fans, something like this being in the bubble is truly gonna test our character,” said JDV. “We understand how good this Magnolia team is. We’re really gonna lean on each other and be battle-ready and have each other’s back for this.” Corpuz said he can’t wait for the opening tip. “Opening pa lang, isa na yun sa tinignan ko, kung anong schedule ng Clasico,” he said. “Minsan, noong wala pa ako sa Magnolia, tatlong beses kaming nakasabay sa schedule nila, ‘di pa ko agad umuuwi at pinanonood ko yung Clasico. Lalo na ngayon, nandito ako, ma-experience ko na.”

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