Star rookie Mark Cruz may be the shortest player on the floor, but the young playmaker made sure he’ll make the biggest plays for a Hotshots side that needed a victory in their win-or-go-home match against Mahindra on Wednesday.
Standing just below 5-7, the former Letran Knight took over in the last period, firing 14 of his PBA career-high 18 points in that stretch to power Star to an 86-73 win against Mahindra and help the Hotshots catch the last quarterfinal bus in the PBA Commissioner’s Cup.
Cruz admitted being nervous during the game, considering the big responsibility he had to shoulder as he helps man the team’s injury-depleted backcourt.
Lead playmaker Mark Barroca was limited to just 28 minutes after suffering a nasty cut just above his eyebrow due to an accidental hit by Mahindra guard Karl Dehesa in the opening quarter.
“Bago pa mag-start yung game, sinabihan na ako to be ready kasi tatlong guards lang kami,” Cruz told sports scribes as the Hotshots missed the services of veteran star James Yap (calf) and Fil-Am Alex Mallari (right Achilles).
“Di ko in-expect na tatamaan si Mark (Barroca) kaya maaga ako papasok. Pero nandun yung teammates ko like sila Justin (Melton) at sinabihan ako na mag-relax lang at huwag maging tight,” he added.
With the constant encouragement from his teammates, Cruz got more comfortable.
And it helped that he was able to get a quick driving layup off Nard Pinto early in the last period, a shot that boosted his confidence further.
When Mahindra started staging its last-minute rally, Cruz knocked down back-to-back triples that proved to be a backbreaker.
“Kaya ganun kabigat yung pressure kasi no room for mistakes so kailangan maganda ibigay ko na contribution,” said the 23-year-old Cruz.
Star coach Jason Webb said he’s just happy to see Cruz, the team’s 30th overall pick in last year’s PBA Draft, rise to the occasion.
“Our smallest guy had to be called upon to play well and kahit maliit yung tao, ang puso naman nung bata grabe,” a beaming Webb said after the game. – By Richard Dy
Follow this writer on Twitter: @richava