AIR21 got a huge emotional lift from Fil-Am Rob Reyes as it snapped a four-game losing skein via an easy 97-76 victory over a disorganized Petron Blaze on Friday night in the PBA Philippine Cup at the Smart Araneta Coliseum.
The wide-bodied Reyes, who played for Petron early last season before being traded to the Express, scattered 17 points on 8-of-9 field goal shooting and hauled down six rebounds in just 16 minutes, injecting the energy the Express sorely lacked during their past four games.
“Rob gave us a big lift. He’s now assuming the leadership (for the team) in terms of being vocal. I think he’s tailor-fit for us right now because of his physical presence and defensive presence. Of course, his offensive game is something else,” said Air21 coach Franz Pumaren.
The Express improved to 2-5 after dealing a highly fancied Petron team another setback a day after head coach Olsen Racela's 42nd birthday.
Pumaren said one of their immediate goals coming into the game was to limit their turnovers. And they managed to do just that against a more experienced and more talented Petron squad as the Express finished the game with just 10 turnovers. They also shot 50.6 percent from the field (43-of-85).
The Express’ defense was also outstanding, holding the Boosters to just 34.2 percent or 26-of-76 from the field, while forcing them to 16 turnovers.
Air21’s more athletic and taller frontline easily outplayed the undersized Petron squad, which has been handicapped by the absence of rookie center June Mar Fajardo and Danny Ildefonso, both on the injured list.
Dorian Pena, the only legitimate center left in Petron's lineup, failed to keep up with the faster and more agile Air21 big men, allowing the Express to stretch what was just a six-point halftime lead to a commanding 85-60 bubble early in the final period.
“After our last game, we made some adjustments already. We limited our turnovers because if you notice, in the last games we had, the way we threw the ball away, it’s no-brainer that it was the reason why we were losing," Pumaren said.
"My coaching staff made a very good preparation. We maximized the mismatches. If you notice, it was a very different Air21 from a while ago. We were very aggressive and we outworked them (Boosters).”
The Boosters hardly put up a fight, going from one turnover after the other, particularly in the fourth period while the Express kept their intensity, eventually dealing Petron its fourth loss in seven starts.
Racela's starters – Arwind Santos, Chris Lutz, Alex Cabagnot, and Joseph Yeo - shot a combined 15-of-43.
Santos finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds, but just couldn’t lead the Boosters on his own.
Air21 collected 22 points and seven rebounds from Mark Isip, while Bonbon Custodio, Nino Canaleta and Bitoy Omolon combined for 35 points and 20 rebounds.
Air21 (97) - Isip 22, Reyes 17, Custodio 12, Canaleta 12, Omolon 11, Baclao 9, Wilson 5, Taha 4, Arboleda 3, Ritualo 2, Atkins 0
Petron (76) - Santos 15, Lutz 13, Cabagnot 11, Washington 9, Mallari 6, Yeo 6, Lassiter 5, Lanete 4, Pena 4, Miranda 3, Sison 0, Duncil 0
Quarter scores: 34-23, 48-42, 79-58, 97-76