Stage set: It’s SMB vs TNT

San Miguel Beer stayed on the road to its lost kingdom in the PBA.

Title-less since their All-Filipino five-peat and Commissioner’s Cup reign in 2019, the retooled Beermen punched their ticket to the battle for the PBA’s crown jewel with a 100-89 clincher over Meralco in a one-sided semifinal rubbermatch last night at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.

Still bannered by June Mar Fajardo, who’s now surrounded by a younger but talented crew of CJ Perez, Jericho Cruz and Vic Manuel, SMB set itself up for a live wire titular confrontation with defending champion TNT.

The flagship teams of San Miguel Corp. and the MVP Group will figure in a marquee finale after last facing off in the 2019 Commissioner’s Cup. The Beermen won that one, 4-2, before the Tropang Giga beat the Beermen in seven games in last year’s Philippine Cup Final Four.

Fajardo muscled his way to 29 points and 14 rebounds to lead SMB to the closeout.

“Matagal na rin kaming hindi nakaabot ng finals, three years, so talagang trinabaho namin makuha ito,” said Fajardo, who with this finals entry is committing P100,000 to his personal donation drive in the season.

Perez, who joined SMB from Terrafirma last year, scored 18 to go with nine assists en route to his first finals appearance. Marcio Lassiter, one of the remaining vanguards from San Miguel’s old dynasty, shot 16, nine of them in the first, as transferees Manuel and Cruz added 13 and 12, respectively.

Cliff Hodge, with 23 and eight boards, showed the way for the Bolts, who fell short of making the finale for the first time.

Three days after bungling the clincher in Game 6, the Beermen came out with a lot more fire.

Led by the outside sniping of Lassiter and the attacks of Fajardo and Perez, Leo Austria’s charges stormed to a 20-6 start en route to a 26-12 buffer. Lassiter dropped nine while Perez and Fajardo combined for 13 as SMB made nine of their 18 shots while choking Meralco to a woeful 3-of-18 clip (16.7 percent) in the opening canto.

The Beermen widened the gap to 20 at 34-14 before the Bolts uncorked 11 unanswered points to get to within nine. Fajardo and Co., however, quickly extinguished the threat with a 19-6 blast that restored a 14-point spread at the turn.

Learning their lessons from the 96-92 loss in the previous game, the Beermen kept their poise in the face of Meralco’s last stand to get the job done.

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