NEWLY acquired Mike Cortez showed he can still make the big shots after delivering the crucial baskets down the stretch to lead Air21 to a come-from-behind 86-85 victory over hard-luck Barako Bull on Friday night in the PBA Philippine Cup at the Cuneta Astrodome.
The veteran Cortez scored the team’s last five points – a clutch three-pointer and a step-back jumper off the taller Sean Anthony - to round out an impressive debut with the Express, who acquired him from Ginebra just three days earlier in a straight trade for rookie big man Yousef Taha.
“Where can you find a better script than that? Mike Cortez taking over. He scored the last five points to turn things around for us,” said Air21 coach Franz Pumaren, Cortez' coach in college at La Salle.
Pumaren said the arrival of the crafty playmaker was the answer to the team's problems. "Like what I’ve been stressing, we found the solution already. (We got) somebody who can glue us together down the stretch," he said after the Express' third win in eight games.
Cortez, who is turning 32 on Saturday, finished with a conference-high 24 points on top of six rebounds, six assists and five steals in 24 minutes of action. He had been averaging career-lows with the Gin Kings – 3.5 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists in just 14.67 minutes a game - prior to the trade.
“It’s hard, but good thing I got to practice a little bit (with the Express). I was able to get a breather on the court. But I just tried to be aggressive and look for the shot,” said Cortez.
The game, marked by nine deadlocks and 12 lead changes, appeared to favor Barako Bull’s way following a quick spin move to the basket by Rico Villanueva made it an 85-81 count, time down to the final 1:40.
But the Energy Cola’s offense conked out from there as Villanueva limped out of the court after twisting his knee badly while trying to go for a fastbreak. Rob Reyes made two big defensive plays to preserve Cortez's fourth-quarter heroics.
“Like what I told Mike before the game, I want him to prove himself he’s still one of the best point guards in the PBA. And that’s a sign he could still play,” added Pumaren.
Air21 86 - Cortez 24, Sena 12, isip 12, Wilson 11, Canaleta 11, Curstodio 10, Arboleda 4, Baclao 2, Reyes 0
Barako Bull 85 – Tubid 24, Pennisi 15, Urbiztondo 14, Anthony 13, Villanueva 13, Najorda 3, Marcelo 2, Kramer 1, Alvarez 0, Yap 0
Quarterscores: 18-19, 38-44, 67-67, 86-85