MANILA, Philippines – “June Mar saved us.”
These were the words of SMART Gilas Pilipinas head coach Chot Reyes after the national team hacked out a hard-fought 90-83 victory over visiting Chinese Taipei in the FIBA World Cup qualifiers on Monday at the Araneta Coliseum.
June Mar Fajardo, San Miguel’s star center and four-time PBA MVP, has not always been able to translate his dominant play in the local league to the international level, but he was superb against Chinese Taipei on both ends of the floor.
Gilas stumbled out of the gate against Chinese Taipei, falling behind 17-3 with naturalized center Andray Blatche struggling on offense and looking a step slow on defense. Fajardo entered with 6:34 left in the opening quarter, and promptly went to work.
He shrugged off two early fouls and crashed the boards for putbacks, then baited Chinese-Taipei’s naturalized player, Quincy Davis III, into fouls as well. Fajardo pulled out all his tricks, including a nifty rip-through move in the second frame, to draw Davis’ third foul and force Chinese Taipei to play sans their best player.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Fajardo scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking two shots. Blatche picked it up defensively in the second half, and together the two big men shut down the paint to help push Gilas to the win.
“I thought June Mar saved us,” said Reyes after the game. “We got off to that terrible start, but you know, it’s a big luxury for us to know that we’ve got a guy like June Mar coming off the bench.”
“In Japan, I thought he had a great performance. But today, he was fantastic,” he added.
Reyes pointed out that Fajardo made sure that Chinese-Taipei paid for its decision to focus its defense on Blatche. The naturalized Filipino was doubled repeatedly; at one point, three players swarmed Blatche, leaving Fajardo wide open for the easiest of lay-ups.
“They have to pick their poison,” said Reyes. “They keyed their defense on Blatche, took away his driving lanes, and doubled him at every opportunity.”
“But they can’t double-team both Blatche and June Mar,” he noted. “That allowed June Mar to operate by himself and got him a lot of opportunities.”
Fajardo, as is his tendency, shrugged off praise and instead expressed gratitude to his coaches and teammates for the trust they placed in him.
“Kailangan lang talaga naming sundin ‘yung game plan namin,” he said. “Nagawa naman namin. Medyo nag-relax lang kami sa first quarter, pero buti nakabawi kami sa depensa.”
He may have won his match-up with Davis – the naturalized player had 20 points, but only four of those came in the pivotal second half – but Fajardo only said: “Siguro naka-tsamba lang.”
“Nagpapasalamat lang ako sa mga teammates ko and kay coach sa tiwala niya,” Fajardo said. “Kung ano ‘yung pwede kong ma-contribute sa team, gagawin ko. Thankful lang ako.”
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