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The 10 Greatest Upsets in PBA Playoff History

While it's easy to recall games that favored the underdogs, the bigger accomplishment is to do this in a matchup series
by Jay P. Mercado | Oct 2, 2017
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There's always a high degree of fascination whenever a David conquers a Goliath in the grand stage of sports. The PBA, in its 42 years of existence, has had its fair share of stellar upsets over the years. And it is in these upsets that make their game or series easier to remember—enough to earn them a slot in FHM's list of the 10 Greatest Upsets in PBA Playoff History.

1979 Open Conference Finals – Royal Tru Orange over Toyota Tamaraws, 3-1

Sure, Royal had two imports—the 6'11" Otto Moore and the 6'7" Larry Pounds, playing simultaneously against the one-at-a-time pair of Bruce "Sky" King and Andrew Fields of Toyota. And yes, RTO was dominant in the entire conference, going 13-3 in the eliminations and went 5-1 in the semifinals to get the first Finals seat. But they were going up against the mighty Tamaraws, a team that just won two conferences in 1978, and is debuting in the Finals.

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Toyota can't seem to get untracked, losing the first two games of the series, 104-99 and 100-95, before pulling off a 99-98 squeaker in Game 3. With confidence buoyed by the win, the Tamaraws led practically the entire Game 4 until the Orangemen wrested the lead for the first and only time, 102-101, off a Moore feed to Pounds, with six seconds remaining. Not calling any timeout, Francis Arnaiz attacked court to court, only to see him losing the ball off a tap from behind by Yoyong Martirez, giving the SMC company their first-ever franchise title, and perhaps, the first greatest upset in PBA history.

1980 Open Conference Finals – U/Tex Wranglers over Toyota Tamaraws, 3-2

Toyota just dominated the elimination round, winning 15 of its 18 games to come out on top. U/Tex had an 11-7 card, enough to crack the semifinals. But Tommy Manotoc's charges, led by imports Aaron James and Glenn McDonald, rose to the occasion in the Final Four, winning four of its six games to earn the first Finals berth. The Tamaraws had to scrape past Walk Tall Jeans (Crispa) 102-100, to gain the second berth.

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The Wranglers won Games 1 and 3 through the collaborative efforts of their short rotation: James, McDonald, Bogs Adornado, Lim Eng Beng, Fritz Gaston, Jimmy Nobleazada, and Ricky Pineda. Toyota got payback in Game 2, and, in the game made famous by Manotoc's classic line, "One step backwards, two steps forward," Toyota routed U/Tex, 113-92 in Game 4. Manotoc pulled out his starters with still over six minutes left in the game and the Tamaraws up by 11. The astute mentor felt that the Wranglers didn't have any shot at winning as the Tamaraws were dominant, opting to rest his key men in preparation for Game 5. True enough, that game may perhaps be remembered as one of the best in PBA history. With 16 seconds to go and Toyota up, 94-90 with three fouls to give, the Tamaraws failed to foul James, who had a 20-foot jumper from the elbow with 11 seconds left. Toyota struggled to inbound the ball and lost possession to McDonald, who came away with a steal and was fouled. The former Boston Celtic—hero of the 1976 NBA Finals Game 6—replicated his feat, sinking two pressure-packed free throws to send the game into extension. Adornado sank a perimeter jumper with 1:25 remaining, giving the Wranglers the lead, 99-98, which they held on to win the championship.

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1988 All-Filipino Conference Finals – Añejo Rum 65 over Purefoods Hotdogs, 3-1

The betting lines were clear: Añejo Rum was the underdog against the star-laden Hotdogs team led by veterans Ramon Fernandez, Willie Generalao and JB Yango, and upstarts Alvin Patrimonio, Jerry Codiñera, Jojo Lastimosa, Glenn Capacio, and Jack Tanuan. The 65ers had to survive a bruising series against the San Miguel Beermen, winning 102-100, on a nifty Joey Loyzaga inside pass to Romy Mamaril for the buzzer beater. Fans hoped for the more exciting San Miguel-Purefoods game because they were better matched, and with Añejo sneaking into the picture, a sweep was possible for the favorites.

But the Hotdogs surprisingly dropped Game 1, 111-105, in a controversial game that saw Fernandez being accused by Purefoods bigwigs of "throwing the game away." He was subsequently benched the rest of the series, but the odds remained solidly in favor of Purefoods. They tied the series in Game 2, winning 117-112, sparked by Lastimosa's 27 points. Games 3 and 4 manifested Ginebra's never-say-die spirit, coming back from 16 and 19 point deficits, respectively, to pull off huge wins against their adversaries. Robert Jaworski, Sr. was the hero for both games, making the go-ahead FTs in Game 3, winning 112-110, and then leading the 65ers with 28 points for an overtime 135-124 win against the hapless Hotdogs.

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1990 All-Filipino Conference Finals – Presto Tivolis over Purefoods Hotdogs, 4-3

Presto had a rousing start, sweeping 10 straight games, to easily make it to the playoffs. Purefoods had the second-best record with seven wins. And as the Hotdogs flourished in the semis, winning six of eight, giving them the first Finals seat, Presto only won three and lost five, putting them in a sudden-deat playoff against San Miguel. The Tivolis won by a shave, 117-115, to enter the Finals as solid underdogs against Purefoods, a team in search of its first-ever PBA title.

Presto was made up of a couple of veteran players released by the Hotdogs because of their deep bench—Willie Genralao, Onchie Dela Cruz, Totoy Marquez and Padim Israel—and the former was more than willing to accommodate them. Tivolis won the odd-numbered games with Purefoods coming back to win the even-numbered ones. But the Presto was in a dilemma as superstar Allan Caidic, who was leading all scorers at that time, suffered a hand injury in Game 6 and couldn't play. Coach Jimmy Mariano went to his veterans Generalao, Arnie Tuadles, Manny Victorino, and Abe King to pull off a majestic 115-96 upset over the heavily favored Hotdogs.

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1999 All-Filipino Conference Quarterfinals – Barangay Ginebra Kings over Mobiline Phone Pals

This was a forgetful conference for Ginebra, underperforming in the first year of the post-Big J era. They wound up tied at the cellar with only six wins in 16 games, and had to beat Sta. Lucia, 77-74, for the last spot in the quarterfinal round, drawing the top-seeded powerhouse Mobiline (led by Asi Taulava), which only needed to win once to enter the semis. The Kings pulled off an unexpected 77-67 win over the sluggish Phone Pals to send the series into a sudden-death game.

Mobiline led practically most of the game, but Ginebra kept it close, giving them a window to steal the game in the end. And having possession with two seconds to go, down 80-81, the fate of the Kings lied on that one last play. Bal David got the inbound, twirled off his defender, before taking a right elbow jumper off the glass at the sound of the buzzer for a pulsating 82-81 win. Every Ginebra fan would remember this game—David and his teammates celebrating and Taulava relegated to the far side of the bench in tears.


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1999 All-Filipino Conference Finals – Formula Shell Zoom Masters over Tanduay Rhum Masters, 4-2

Both Shell and Tanduay were tied at 9-7 at the end of the elimination round and both took a short route going to the Finals. The Rhum Masters demolished Pop Cola 800s in the quarters and won, 3-1, against defending champion Alaska Aces, while the Zoom Masters stopped SMB in the QF and swept Ginebra in the semifinals. But it was clear that Tanduay had the solid advantage with the quality of personnel that they had—Eric Menk, Sonny Alvarado, Mark Telan, Pido Jarencio, Jayvee Gayoso, Jason Webb, Bobby Jose and Chris Cantonjos—compared to Shell's Benjie Paras, Vic Pablo, Chris Jackson, Gerry Esplana, Jun Marzan, Noy Castillo, Rommel Santos and Jay Mendoza. The Rhum Masters were poised to give their team owner, Lucio Tan, Sr., his very first PBA championship after an unsuccessful stint in the '80s.

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The series saw how Tanduay unraveled. Instead of relying on the strength of their deep bench, only Menk and Alvarado delivered, while Shell, following instructions from coach Perry Ronquillo, played beautiful music together. After losing Game 1, the Zoom Masters won 4 of the last 5 games to pull off a major shocker. Media hyped the win, coming up with a sidelight feature of how Paras stood his ground against the influx of Fil-foreigners to protect his turf. While Esplana ended up winning MVP, Paras provided the intimidation that stonewalled the Rhum Masters' imposing inside presence.

2001 Governors' Cup Finals – Sta. Lucia Realtors over San Miguel Beermen, 4-2

The two teams have previously locked up in the 2000 Commissioner's Cup, with the Beermen ending up victors in five games. The rematch wasn't supposed to be any different, as San Miguel, with their deep local bench and resident super import Lamont Strothers, were pegged as odds-on favorites. The Realtors shocked the Beermen in Games 1 and 3, while the San Miguel struck back in Game 2, and a decisive 106-73 victory in Game 4 to knot the series at 2-all.

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With momentum riding high on SMB after that clinical Game 4 win, the end was near for Sta. Lucia. But in a stunning turnaround, SLR import Damien Owens pumped in 37 points and came back from a halftime deficit to conquer the Beermen, 85-71 for a 3-2 series lead. In Game 6, Realtors reserve guard Chris Tan, struggling all series long from the beyond the arc without any conversions, suddenly made a three-point shot with 3.3 seconds left to give the Realtors a 75-72 lead, its first-ever franchise championship, and pulling off a major coup of stopping the dominant Beermen.

2011-12 Philippine Cup Quarterfinals – Powerade Tigers over B-Meg Llamados

The Llamados were brimming with confidence under their new coach. Multi-titled Alaska mentor Tim Cone has joined the team and was expected to lead them to greater glory. They didn't disappoint, topping the elimination round with 10 wins in 14 games. They were to face the eighth-seeded Tigers, which barely scraped into the quarterfinals.

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With Christmas just around the corner, B-Meg was hoping to end this series fast and prepare themselves for a hard-grind series against the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters. In the pre-series, TV broadcaster Magoo Marjon said, "Powerade has no chance in hell against B-Meg," a line that inspired Tigers hotshot Gary David to prove everyone wrong. David scored 32 points and teammate Marcio Lassiter added 24, giving the Tigers a 97-88 victory to force an extra game. In the decider, Powerade exploded for 22 treys, including eight from David who topscored with 37 points, to pull off a massive 131-123 overtime upset win over the Llamados.

2011-12 Governors' Cup Finals – Rain or Shine Elasto Painters over B-Meg Llamados, 4-3

This was the breakthrough title for the Elasto Painters, their first of two under coach Yeng Guiao. It wasn't like they were heavy underdogs—they topped the eliminations and earned the first Finals berth, while B-Meg had to beat Ginebra, 74-72, for the second Finals seat. They even won Game 1, 91-80, before the Llamados tied the series at one apiece with an 85-80 win. But the series odds tilted in favor of the Llamados when ROS top player, Paul Lee, was declared out for the conference after suffering a shoulder injury in their Game 2 loss.

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Still, Guiao was unfazed, and boldly predicted his team would still win the title. Rain or Shine won the next two games, before Cone's charges equalized to send the series into a deciding Game 7. The Elasto Painters went to import Jamelle Cornley, who finished the game with 20 points and 14 boards but the title was still on the line until B-Meg import Marques Blakely fouled out with still 8:30 left in the game. When the smoke cleared, it was Rain or Shine, proving doubters wrong, that came out on top, 83-76.

2014 Commissioner's Cup Quarterfinals - Air21 Express over San Miguel Beermen

San Miguel ended the elimination round at second overall, thus giving them a twice-to-beat edge against seventh-place Air21. It wasn't the best situation for the Express in its first time to enter the semifinals after they bought the Barako Bull franchise in 2012. Under the able stewardship of Franz Pumaren, the Express should have already been happy to be in the quarterfinals but Pumaren wanted more. In their first game, the Beermen played listless and the Air21 were quick to capitalize, beating them, 92-79 to forge a rubber match.

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In the sudden-death game, the emotions were high, reaching its peak at the closing minute of the second quarter when the Express' Joseph Yeo was tossed after hitting Chris Ross in the groin during a chasedown play. San Miguel was on its way to victory, leading 81-71 with only a minute and five seconds remaining, but Air21 came back with a searing 11-1 charge, sending the game into overtime with an Asi Taulava buzzer-beating putback. After scoring six points apiece in the first extension, the game got extended by another five minutes until the Express wrapped it up, pulling off a 101-95 victory and extending the Beermen novela further.


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