The Gilas Pilipinas basketball team came into the Asian games in high spirits after having won their penultimate game against Senegal in Spain. However, they also had a huge target on their backs, as their Asian rivals have recognized the capabilities of our team.
Riding high on their impressive showing in Spain, the Gilas boys went on a sizzling 16-0 start against India in their first game of the tournament. The tall Indians were outmatched by the Philippine team, as Gilas never relinquished the lead throughout the game. Though they would cut the lead to single digits in some instances, the Indians just could not break through, as the Philippines answered their every rally. The Philippines went on to win, 76-85, securing their spot on the next round.
Though it was a non-bearing game in terms of qualification, the next game featured a highly-anticipated rematch of the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship game. Iran was bent on beating the Philippines after their World Championship performance. Iran’s man in the middle, Hamed Haddadi, did not hide his desire to face the Philippines in this tournament.
The Iranians started off strong, coming out of the gates with a 19-6 lead over the Philippines. It looked like the game was going in the way of Iran again, before the Philippines turned up the defense and found their mark, limiting the Iran squad to just seven points in the second period to cut the lead to just two, 34-36. The hotly contested match swung to the favor of Gilas in the third, where the Philippines finally claimed the lead at the start of the quarter via a five-point start by Paul Lee. The back-and-forth match saw both teams trading runs.
The Philippines held a 60-53 lead in the middle of the fourth quarter, looking poised to win against Iran for the first time since the 2012 Jones Cup. However, a late charge by the Iranians led by guard Mehdi Kamrani saw the Iranians taking the lead back, 61-60 late in the quarter. The Philippines would fight back and take the lead again, 63-61, but would not score again after that. Iran’s Nikah Bahrami went on a personal five-point run that would give them the lead and some extra cushion that the Philipines would not be able to overcome. Iran went on to win, 68-63, to claim the top spot in the group. Though the Philippines also moved on to the next round, Coach Chot Reyes expressed his disappointment on the team’s performance.
With the loss, the Philippines was grouped together with Kazakhstan, Qatar, and Korea. Iran, for their part, went to a group featuring China, Mongolia, and Japan. The top two teams of each group will move on to the semifinals.
First on the Philippines’ schedule was Qatar, a team that we’ve managed to beat a few times already over the past several years. However, things looked bleak for the Philippines towards the middle of the game, as the Qataris mounted a 19-0 run that ended in the third quarter. Trailing by 12 late in the third, Jimmy Alapag came into the game and fired off three straight triples to cut the Qatar lead to just five, 51-56 to end the third quarter. However, they could not come up with the baskets to get themselves back in the game, as Qatar held off the Philippines’ rallies to win, 77-68.
The loss put pressure on the Philippines to win its next two games if they hoped to compete for the medal rounds; a difficult task considering it’ll be against the hosts Korea and a tough Kazakhstan squad. If it wasn’t enough, Coach Chot Reyes would spark spirited discussions among Gilas supporters after he called out Marcus Douthit for “quitting” on the team.
Throughout the tournament, Gilas enjoyed immense fan support from the Filipinos who came to see them play. Against the hosts, the team wasn’t the only one who got challenged, but so was the crowd. The Philippine contingent looked to have the upper hand by firing long bombs on Korea to establish a seven point lead at the half. The lead would balloon to as much as 16 points, before Korea’s Moon Tae-Jong led a furious rally to cut the lead down and ultimately take the lead for Korea. The American-South Korean swingman who was naturalized in 2011 finished off with 38 points, six rebounds, and four assists en route to a 95-97 win against the feisty Filipinos.
It’s worth noting that Marcus Douthit did not play a single minute in the game against Korea. Later, Coach Chot would reveal that Douthit was benched for “disciplinary reasons.” The loss to Korea was a huge blow to the chances of the Philippines, as they would need several scenarios to advance to the next round. First, Kazakhstan must win against Qatar in their game later in the day. Next, the Philippines needs to win against Kazakhstan by 11 points in their match the next day to have a superior point difference in case of a three-way tie. The three way tie would only happen if Korea manages to beat Qatar in their game after the Kazakhstan-Philippines match.
It seemed like the basketball gods were smiling on the Philippines, as the first scenario was fulfilled, giving a glimmer of hope for team Gilas.
Their game against the Kazakhs started off slow, with both teams failing to find the bottom of the net early in the game. Things picked up for the Philippines in the second quarter, with LA Tenorio finally hitting the first three of the game for Gilas. The team’s pesky defense and desire for the ball frustrated the Kazakhs, ultimately leading to Kazakhstan’s coach being called for a technical foul late in the second quarter. The Philippines led by as much as 18 points in the game, on the strength of Marcus Douthit’s return to the lineup and the Philippines’ signature long bombs. Despite limiting Kazakhstan’s key players, Team Gilas wasn’t able to stop Pavel Ilin as he cut through the Gilas defense time and again to chop down the Philippine lead. With under two minutes remaining in the game and the Kazakhs trailing by only seven points, the Philippines started fouling in hopes to extend the game to satisfy the point difference. The Kazakhs would cut the lead down to just two points with about five seconds left in the game. In a bizarre strategy, Douthit would put the ball in Kazakhstan’s basket to deliberately force a turnover. They would immediately foul Kazakhstan after they put the ball in play and hoped that they would make the free throws to force overtime. Coach Vitaly Strebklov would have none of it, as he instructed his player to intentionally miss both free throws instead of extending the game to overtime. As a result, no matter what happens to the Korea-Qatar game.
Kazakhstan would move on to the next round with Korea, following a superior point difference even if there would be a three-way tie in the group.
The Philippines will round up their campaign competing in the losers’ bracket, with a fifth-place finish being the top prize. While still respectable, it clearly is a disappointing finish for Team Gilas, especially with the expectations that they carried.
Calls for the resignation of Coach Chot grew louder after the team’s dismal performance in the Asian Games. Just a few moments after their game against Kazakhstan, Reyes said he’s leaving his fate as the team’s coach to the management.
For a team that clawed its way back to respectability in the region, Team Gilas has actually come a long way. We’ve been looking back at our success in the past for way too long already, and this team actually gave us a chance to bask at the glory of global recognition. While at first we were just happy to beat Korea in the 2013 FIBA Asia tournament, we were later demanding for a win in Spain. In Spain, we wanted our Gilas boys to just hang around with the strong Euro teams. When they were able to do that, everyone suddenly became critical of Coach Chot’s decision-making because we weren’t actually winning. The fast rise of the Philippines came with mounting expectations, because the fans always wanted more.
In his defense, Coach Chot reached his goals for this team; to gain respectability in Asia and to compete in the World Cup. Whether or not he is the right coach for the team moving forward, Filipino fans should be thankful because he took the challenge and fulfilled his goals. While this tournament may have been a step back for the Philippines, surely our great strides over the past couple of years are far greater than this one stumble.
We’ll just have to be united in believing more rather than be divided by expectations.