Air21 rookie Rabeh Al-Hussaini drives past two Barako Bull defenders in this bit of action in the PBA Philippine Cup at the Big Dome. The Express won, 82-77.  (GMANews.TV)


MANILA — Rabeh Al-Hussaini again underscored why he should have been the season’s top overall pick in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) Rookie Draft.

Air21's big man capped a superb 30-point performance by scoring 10 of his team’s final 12 points, steering the Express past Barako Bull, 82-77, for a seat in the quarterfinals of the Philippine Cup at the Araneta Coliseum.

Snubbed as the year’s top rookie selection, the No. 2 pick came a point short of matching his career-high 31, which he registered in a losing effort against San Miguel last Nov. 26.

But his effort was more than enough to give the Express their fifth win in 12 games, slamming the playoff door on both Barako Bull and Powerade.

Coach Yeng Guiao had nothing but praise for his prized rookie.

“Rabeh played his career game so far," said Guiao. “It was a glimpse of his potential if his mind is in the game and if he’s serious about his purpose."

In scoring back-to-back 30-plus points, Al-Hussaini became the latest rookie to post such a feat since Eric Menk accomplished it in 1999 while playing for expansion team Tanduay.

The Energy Boosters are going to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight time, while the Tigers failed to make the quarterfinals for the first time in five years since the 2005-06 Fiesta Cup.

The Express also got plenty of support from Ronjay Buenafe, who contributed 18 points. Top overall rookie pick Nonoy Baclao had a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds.

But the team unveiled a hidden gem in veteran free agent Lou Gatumbato, who took charge in calling the shots for Air21.

An undrafted rookie in 2004, the former College of St. Benilde Blazers star point guard contributed seven points, five rebounds, three assists and a steal in his PBA debut.

“I think he’s the oldest rookie in the PBA, but I am really impressed with him," said Guiao. “Our guards are not really playing as what we expected, so we really needed that lift. His steadiness made us better."

With two games left in its schedule, Air21 hopes to complete a sweep of its remaining assignments in a bid to finish above seventh or eight place.

Under the new tournament format, the last two placers will have to win twice in a row against the Nos. 1 or 2 squads to advance into the semifinals.

“As much as possible, we have to avoid San Miguel," said Guiao. “If not, then we’ll give them a good fight."

In pulling off the all-important win, the Express needed a big scoring run late in the game after finding themselves trailing, 70-71.

Al-Hussaini scored eight in a 10-0 blast by the Express that turned the game around, 80-71, in the final 1:21.

An 89-79 winner over Air21 in its first-round encounter, the Energy Boosters just couldn’t repeat this time, dropping their eighth straight game for a 2-11 record.

Mark Isip finished with 23 points for Barako Bull, including 12 in the third period.

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