With only 1:44 minutes left to play and the game pretty much out of reach for Gilas, Gabe Norwood suddenly came up with a monster block on China’s star point guard Guo Ailun’s layup. That one play symbolized what the Filipinos’ resolve had been all tournament long – feistiness, PUSO, and that if they were going down, they were going down swinging.
In the end, the Great Wall of China was simply too much to scale.
Amid the roaring of a hostile Chinese crowd, the Filipinos fell to the younger and much more athletic Chinese squad, 67-78, settling for a silver finish in the FIBA Asia tournament, and putting a hold to their 2016 Rio Olympic dreams.
The Gilas defeat shattered millions of Filipinos’ hearts and sent shockwaves across the Philippines that were almost as strong –or perhaps even stronger – as the ones sent by a Manny Pacquiao loss.
Netizen jokes about how the winner between the Philippines and China would be given the Spratly Islands quickly turned into frustration and rage about how the Chinese team got all the questionable calls, or how the Filipinos experienced several delays before the game, or how disrespectful the home crowd was to the visiting team.
But despite the reported unfortunate happenings, whether they were done on purpose or not, the game was ultimately decided by China’s apparent height advantage, their accuracy with their shots, and the way they clamped down the Filipinos on defense.
Naturalized Filipino center Andray Blatche was the only man who scored in double digits for Gilas while Jayson Castro, widely regarded as the best point guard in Asia, was clearly bothered by the Chinese defense as he recorded only 8 points, well below his tournament average of 16.7.
At times, we appeared to have our chances when we came out guns blazing in the first quarter and lead 15-10. Even in the fourth quarter, when a quick Gilas spurt cut the Chinese lead down to 6. But that was as close as we came, as we suddenly went cold with our jumpers and every time we had an opportunity to inch closer and close the gap, somebody would throw an errant pass or we couldn’t hit our free throws.
Despite all the non-calls against the Philippines and all the questionable calls that went China’s way, the total in-game fouls were relatively close at 24-28.
“We fell short kasi talagang dinisrupt nila ‘yung offense natin atsaka medyo ‘yung mga referee, may konting tulong,” said Castro.
Even though Gilas didn’t win the gold, they still have a chance at cracking a spot at the 2016 Rio Olympics courtesy of the FIBA Qualifying Tournament happening in 2016 from July 5 to 16 in which the top 3 teams next to the champion in the FIBA Asia tournament were relegated to.
But when the teams you’re playing against include perennial powerhouses Canada, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Angola, Puerto Rico, Tunisia, Senegal, Japan, Iran, New Zealand, and Serbia, the chances of getting into the top three are pretty slim.
Finishing second in FIBA for two times in a row is a great accomplishment for any basketball team. But for the Philippines, the plan was to win the gold and book an outright ticket to achieving the ultimate goal.
Rio was the ultimate goal.
“Second place is more than honorable, but right now it feels like not first place. And not first place is not what we came here for,” said an apparently downcast coach Tab Baldwin.
But despite the formation of the team on short notice, the absence of significant players who were shoo-ins to the national team, and all the criticism that the team drew from its detractors – Gilas 3.0 is the weakest Gilas ever assembled; Asi and Dondon are too old, Calvin Abueva is a loose cannon, Terrence Romeo is an undisciplined gunslinger, Blatche is out of shape, and a lot more – Gilas 3.0 actually overachieved much and has earned its rightful place in Philippine basketball lore.
By playing an inspiring, tough-it-out, and never-give-up style of play, this version of Gilas has earned the affection of the Filipino people as well as almost everybody who came to see them play.
The beermen ballers back home who gathered at the nearby sari-sari store just to catch a glimpse of their local basketball idols, the jeepney and taxi drivers who passed up on work just to watch the game at a local carenderia, and all the other Filipinos who had to sacrifice something just so they could cheer their team on for sure will remember and will be reenacting in their own games how Dondon Hontiveros torched the Japanese with 6 three-pointers, how young Terrence Romeo left several defenders biting the dust with his nifty crossover, and how Calvin “The Beast” Abueva, despite being undersized, gave up his body and drove fearlessly into the lane against the mighty Chinese.
Filipinos are one of the most knowledgeable basketball fans in the whole world and they love it so much to the point that even crime rates in the country take a nosedive every time a Gilas game airs on television. The whole nation stops and watches – literally.
All these, and the fact that the people know that Gilas is doing it all for them and the country makes cheering for the national team all the more worthwhile.
And though the outcome was certainly nothing close to the fairytale ending that such a basketball-crazed country and some of the most passionate fans in the world deserve, this is just the start for Gilas and the renaissance of Philippine basketball. This was evidenced when the players, instead of crying at center court after the loss, refused to shake hands with the Chinese after the game and just went straight into the locker room with valiant expressions on their faces.
These were expressions that indicated something like “We lost the battle, but we’re not going to lose the war.”