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Henry Liao

2014 FIBA World Cup: The Best is Yet to Come for Gilas Pilipinas

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There have been various views on Gilas Team Pilipinas’ performance so far in the 17th FIBA Basketball World Cup.

While distinct from each other, most comments are valid and can be defended before the bar of public opinion – if not at Plaza Miranda.

Regardless, the Philippine national team has exceeded expectations with its tireless, never-say-die play albeit in losing efforts.

The views center on such issues as:

1- There’s victory in defeat.

2- Close calls do not count.

3- The team’s best is not good enough.

Issue No. 1. Is there really a victory in defeat? Or is there a silver lining in every cloud?

Team Pilipinas came oh-so-close to registering a victory over Croatia in its opening game, fell to Greece by a decent score after overcoming a huge deficit early on, and succumbed to Argentina after blowing another opportunity to win in the final seconds. Sayang. Heart-breaking losses they all ended up.

After three games, the Philippines and Puerto Rico shared the cellar in the six-team Group B of the four-group preliminary phase in the 24-nation tournament entering last night’s game that essentially was a battle between the two teams out to avoid outright elimination.

The three defeats have been described by hard-core hoops nationalists as “victory in defeat,” moral victories that is.

Maybe so, considering the prognosis by most pre-tournament pundits that Asia’s second-best team (behind the Islamic Republic of Iran on the basis of their finish in the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship) that is ranked only 34th around the globe would be badly beaten by the taller teams from Europe and South America, perhaps by 30 points or more.

Then again, the “puso” spirit in our beloved Pinoy cagers was on heightened alert in all three setbacks. The Croatians won, 81-78, in overtime but not after the Filipinos overcame a deficit of 14 points in the first half and still trailed by eight going into the payoff quarter before launching a monstrous rally that saw them come within a Jeff Chan triple of breaking a deadlock in the last seconds of regulation and resulted in an upset win over FIBA’s 16th-ranked team. In the final seconds of the five-minute extension, Croatia was up by only three points after a brief surge by the Philippines but a chance by the latter to send the nerve-wracking encounter into a second OT was aborted when the honorable referees swallowed their whistle on a three-point attempt by Jason Castro William at the buzzer.

Against FIBA fifth-ranked Greece, our troops were hampered by an injury that naturalized player Andray Blatche suffered in the tournament opener and sudden loss of shooting form by Chan. They fell behind by 13 points through three quarters but sliced the deficit to a single digit midway in the payoff period before fiercely surrendering an 82-70 verdict.

Less than 22 hours later, Gilas Pilipinas took the floor for its third assignment and stormed ahead of FIBA third-ranked Argentina at the opening gates with a 10-point advantage but the Argentines, minus star Manu Ginobili of the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA) champion San Antonio Spurs in the tournament due to an injury, came roaring back in the middle quarters to win by a close 85-81 count. Sometime in the third quarter, the 2004 Olympic gold medalists were up by 15 markers but the Filipinos fought hard to the end and even had an opportunity to equalize the score with less than 20 seconds remaining (and Team Pilipinas behind, 83-81) when William committed a costly unforced turnover that sealed his team’s doom. Chan was held scoreless in just two third-point field attempts but Ranidel De Ocampo (4-for-8 from three-point territory, 18 points) and team skipper Jimmy Alapag (5-for-7 threes, 15 points) came to the rescue.

Blatche, an NBA free agent who saw action with the Brooklyn Nets last season, has been a pillar of strength for the team with double-doubles in all three contests and averages of 21 points and 13.7 rebounds.

In the “Group of Death” that it was in, the Filipinos showed the world that they could match up against the best from the other side of the Pacific, and that it was no longer a basketball patsy in Asia or elsewhere.
With its gutsy performance, our boys once again showed the Filipinos’ trademark resilience and never-say-die spirit not only in the “real world” but also on the sporting scene.

Issue No. 2. Close calls do not count.

At the far end of the spectrum are some Filipino hoop fans that believe that a defeat is a defeat no matter what. There is no “moral victory” column in the tournament standings. Neither is there a column for a “draw” or games that went into overtime. There are only wins and losses.

Close calls do not count except in the movies when the lead actor dodges a bullet or a punch from his adversary before pummeling him to his death.

The late Fernando Poe Jr., in his action-filled movies, was known to evade punches from shady characters, or perhaps even allowed himself to be hit hard during the thrilling exchange-of-blows scenes.
In defeat, our boys have held their heads high with their inspirational fight-to-the-end attitude. Too bad they are not the lead actors in a movie.

Wednesday night (7:30 p.m.), Team Pilipinas needs to beat Puerto Rico and pray that FIBA 41st-ranked Senegal (2-1) does not claim another victim (also Wednesday 11:30 p.m.) in assured group top-four finisher Argentina (2-1) after the FIBA Africa third-placer had earlier taken care of Croatia (2-1) with a 77-75 upset.

A victory by the Senegalese over the Argentines would send them to the single-elimination Round of 16 (second round) and shove the Philippines to the exit door regardless of its final appearance against Senegal today (Manila time, 8 p.m.).

Should Senegal lose to Argentina, the door would still be open for the Philippines’ entry to the next round with a victory of at least three points over the Africans to avoid any complications of a three-way deadlock and/or a winner-over-the-rule tiebreaker should the second round-bound Croats drop their final two games, vs. early qualifier Greece (3-0) early Thursday morning (2 a.m.) and vs. winless Puerto Rico midnight Thursday.

There’s still a slim hope of a bounce-back for a Round of 16 ticket by the Pinoys but two victories of our own won’t be enough as we also need the help of Argentina (it must win over upset-conscious Senegal).

Issue No. 3. Our best is not good enough.

Remember the popular song “Just Once” by Grammy Award-winning James Ingram? The first lines go this way: “I did my best but I guess my best wasn’t good enough. “Cause here we are back where we were before … Just once, can’t we figure out what we keep doing wrong? … Just once, can’t we find a way to finally make it right? Make the magic last for more than one night. If we could just get to it, I know we could break through it."

The Gilas Pilipinas program continues to be a work in progress. And how it has progressed rapidly in the last several years, so much so our Nats now have qualified for the FIBA World Cup for the first time in 36 years.

Within our continent, Team Pilipinas ranked placed fourth in the2011 FIBA Asian Championship in Wuhan, China. Two years later, we placed second on home soil.

Later this month, in the quadrennial Asian Games in Incheon, Korea, our Nationals will try to improve their sixth-place finish in the 2010 Asiad in Guangzhou, China. The lofty goal is to capture the men’s basketball gold for the first time since 1962 – hopefully with Blatche around.

And a year from now, in 2015, the next FIBA Asia showcase will be held in China once again. And this time around, the Philippines will not settle for anything but a championship – a first since 1985.

With a golden finish, it will secure a berth in the 2010 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the first time since the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany.

As one can see, the best has not arrived.

Months from now, the 2014 World Cup will be remembered as another stepping stone in the Philippines’ rise to hoops power under the Gilas Pilipinas program.

As Ingram noted, “If we could just get to it, I know we could break through it.”

Set it in stone. The breakthrough in Philippine basketball is very near.


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