The Gilas Pilipinas team went to Changsha, China with high hopes but plenty of doubters. Their opening day upset loss to newcomers Palestine did not help silence critics. However, after a series of dominating wins, they reclaimed their tag as favorites, and were three wins away from claiming the lone spot for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
A win against Iran in the second round of the tournament and a surprising win by Qatar against Korea in the other group paved the way for a relatively easier road to the Finals for the Philippines.
The Quarterfinals: Lebanon 70 – Philippines 82
The first hurdle in the Philippines’ way was the gritty Lebanon team that beat Jordan in their last game of the second round. Upon learning that they will be matched up against the Philippines, Coach Veselin Matic claimed the Philippines was a much easier opponent than Iran, being quoted as saying “No Iran, now Philippines. We can play Philippines easy, easy.”
Feeling disrespected, the Philippines went out motivated to beat their opponents. However, Lebanon proved to be a handful as they hung tough with the Philippines early in the game, keeping the game close through halftime trailing by just five, 32-37.
The Philippines bucked bad calls and a hostile Chinese crowd and threatened to break the game wide open in the third quarter led by Jayson Castro’s relentless attacks. Lebanon refused to stay down, however, and cut the Gilas lead down to seven points in the final quarter of play. Defense and timely baskets would help the Philippines keep their lead in double digits, though, as they finished off Lebanon with a 12 point win. Through every gritty play, Calvin Abueva could be seen walking over to the Lebanese bench to yell “Easy, easy!” as if to remind Coach Matic that he asked for this.
After the game, Matic tried to clarify the quote, saying the Philippines plays great basketball, but they were an easier matchup than Iran because they lacked size. He did recognize that they had the skill, and that was enough to possibly carry them to the title.
The Semifinals: Japan 70 – Philippines 81
With Qatar beating Korea in the previous round, they relegated the latter to a first-round encounter with Iran instead of a potential semifinal encounter with the Philippines. However, they couldn’t get past Japan in the quarterfinals, setting up a second meeting between Japan and the Philippines.
In their first game, Japan proved to be a handful for the Philippines, before a second half surge helped the Philippines secure the slim seven point win. Their semifinal encounter proved no different. Makoto Hiejima was playing out of his mind, scoring 22 points by halftime, helping them end the half in a tie, 39-all.
Hiejima and Joji Takeuchi gave the Filipinos all that they could handle as they kept the game close through three quarters at 54-all. Dondon Hontiveros then turned back the clock in the game, knocking down triple after triple, as he, Andray Blatche and Jason Castro helped the Philippines pull away late in the game, as Japan’s key players dealt with fatigue.
The Finals: China 78 – Philippines 67
After dealing with two tough teams in the previous rounds, and having dealt with shady calls and non-calls, the Philippines were now up against the hometown team, China. Things did not start off right from the get-go, as their bus was left discharged, causing the team to be late for shootaround. To make matters worse, they had a difficult time getting tickets for their assistant coaches owing to their late arrival.
Still, the Philippines was fired up to start the game, starting off to a hot 5-0 start. However, China crept back and captured the lead shortly after, as they capitalized on 14-of-22 charities against the Philippines’ 7-of-11. As expected, the hostile crowd did not do any favors for the Philippines, nor did the officiating, as they complained all game about the calls.
China would not relinquish their 46-35 advantage at halftime, as nobody in the Gilas team got it going like they did in the previous games. China would keep the Philippines at bay, as they claimed the gold and the lone spot for Rio in the tournament.
Guo Ailun, Zhou Qi, and Yi Jianlian of China, Iran’s Nikkah Bahrami and our very own Jayson Castro-William were named as the Mythical Five members, with China’s Yi winning Most Valuable Player honors.
A Silver Lining with Silver
The road to Rio does not end quite yet. The second, third, and fourth place finishers in the FIBA Asia tournament (Philippines, Iran ,and Japan) will get the chance to book a ticket to Rio through the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in 2016. They will be joined by from Eurobasket (France, Serbia, Greece, Italy, and Czech Republic), three teams from the FIBA Americas (Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico), three teams from Afrobasket (Angola, Tunisia, and Senegal), one team from Oceania (New Zealand), and three host nations that will be determined in November. The teams will be divided into three tournaments consisting of six teams each, with the winner of each tournament qualifying to the Rio Olympics in 2016.
While we may have missed out on the chance for the outright slot by settling for our second straight silver medal in the FIBA Asia tournament, this Gilas team proved that they have the heart to win as much as, if not more, than the previous incarnations of the team. They have silenced critics and made fans believe that we are indeed back as serious contenders in the Asian region, and it won’t be long before we announce our presence in the world stage.
Jayson Castro, who received a second selection as the region’s finest point guard, called for unity for the next tournament if they we are to challenge China’s dominance in the sport. As we set our eyes on an Olympic slot in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, let’s hope that unity starts sooner than later.