MIKE Cortez provided the backcourt stability Meralco sorely needed in a critical third-quarter blitz as the Bolts booked a quarterfinal seat in the PBA Governors Cup following its 100-91 victory over Air21 Express on Sunday night at the Astrodome.
The 6-foot Cortez came alive in the second half, erupting for 13 of his 17 points on top of six assists and two steals in a stellar performance against the team that had traded him just days ago for the rights to man-mountain Asi Taulava.
The Bolts squandered a 16-point first-quarter lead after allowing the Express to stage a comeback in the second period to level the count at 41-all just before half time.
But Cortez stepped up big in Meralco’s huge second-half tear, scoring nine points in the third, mostly on strong penetrations to the basket to give the Bolts a 77-66 lead.
“That’s one important win for us. We were derailed the last time out but we found ways to win today,” said Meralco coach Ryan Gregorio.
“We have to combine our offense with toughness of defense, that’s why we traded for Mike Cortez. With Mike around, we’ll have a more stable half-court game. Mike had a timely offensive production that formalizes our entry to the quarterfinals,” he added.
The win vaulted Meralco back to a tie for second place at 5-3, a record it shares with idle San Mig Coffee.
The Express, meantime, have lost five of their last six games as the loss pushed the new-look squad of coach Franz Pumaren to the brink of elimination.
Air21 remains at the cellar with a 2-6 record. The Express will face the Alaska Aces next Sunday at the Mall of Asia Arena at the close of the single-round elims.
Mario West led the Bolts with 29 points, while Fil-Am rookie Cliff Hodge added 24 and 13 rebounds.
Air21 drew a quiet 22 points from import Zach Graham, while KG Canaleta added 15.
Taulava posted his first double-double performance for the Express with 14 points and 19 rebounds as he played against his former team for the first time since being traded last week for Cortez.
Meralco (100) - West 29, Hodge 24, Cortez 17, Cardona 7, Wilson 6, Salvacion 5, Reyes 4, Hugnatan 4, Ross 2, Timberlake 2, Guevarra 0, Allado 0.
Air 21 (91) - Graham 22, Canaleta 15, Taulava 14, Custodio 10, Manuel 9, Yeo 9, Ritualo 6, Sharma 4, Atkins 2, Salamat 0, Menor 0, Burtscher 0.
Quarterscores: 24-17; 45-41; 77-66; 100-91.