Gilas Pilipinas surprises experts
Those were the simple instructions of Gilas Pilipinas benefactor and MVP Group of companies head honcho Manny V. Pangilinan to the national team to the FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut, Lebanon.
The Philippine squad did just that first with a masterful 96-87 upset of powerhouse China. They then secured outright passage to the quarterfinals with an 84-68 demolition of Iraq.
With the back-to-back victories over China and Iraq, the Philippines (2-0) will top Group B. The Filipinos plays winless Qatar (0-2) today Sunday to formalize the sweep of its group.
Even in the unlikely chance of the squad losing to Qatar the Philippines will win any form of tiebreak over China and/or Iraq which the squad beat earlier.
This affords the Philippine squad a bye in the next phase and propels the team to the quarterfinals.
The country didn’t really expect too much from this team. After all this squad will miss naturalized player Andray Blatche and probably June Mar Fajardo
The team’s best big man Blatche opted to skip this tournament and will be replaced by Christian Standhardinger. Not as talented but actually an adequate rebounder and post defender.
Fajardo, the squad’s best interior scorer, joined the squad in Lebanon but will miss most (if not all) of the team’s games because of a hurting leg.
Despite the handicap the Philippine team shocked the tournament with a decisive victory over bitter rival China.
That game was bruising from start to finish with players trading hits and cheap shots, many missed by the referees.
Calvin Abueva tried to cut into the paint, was hit in the face and sent crashing down the floor by Li Gen who then stood provocatively in front of Abueva who was still on the floor. Abueva, obliged the invitation, stood up and hit the Chinese cager with head butt and was promptly ejected from the game.
The incident hardly dampened the charged up Philippine squad which led by as much as 17 points early. The rough-housing China squad eventually caught up late and even took the lead in the fourth quarter as the Philippines trailed, 82-84, with six minutes left to play.
Terrence Romeo then made his best Steph Curry impersonation with a dazzling dribbling display to elude the Chinese defenders and unerring outside shooting for the crucial points.
Romeo drilled a triple to tie the count at 87-all in the final four minutes. He then hit a fadeway and another back-breaking triple to pad the Philippines’ lead, 92-87.
Standhardinger and Matthew Wright then finalized the count for the Philippine squad.
Romeo finished with 26 points after crucial baskets in the fourth to power the Gilas charge. He also had four assists and was blistering hot from three-point distance converting five of his seven attempts. Standhardinger had 15 points and six rebounds in his first outing as a national player. Wright chipped in 12 markers.
It was a sweet victory for the the Philippine squad which avenged the 2015 loss to China in the Fiba Asia Championship.
Gilas Pilipinas had an easier time against Iraq. The Filipinos trailed 22-28 in the early goings but gradually took control of the game after gaining the measure of their taller but slower and less skilled opponents.
The Filipinos exploded a 19-0 run in the third period to essentially win the game pulling away.
Standhardinger and Romeo again led the Philippine attack. The Fil-German big man unloaded 10 of his 16 points in the third period while Romeo scored 11 of his own 17 in the quarter to lead Gilas to a rousing follow-up victory to its conquest of China.
Gabe Norwood, Carl Bryan Cruz and RR Pogoy also played also stepped up for the national team.
China (1-1) and Iraq (1-1), who both beat Qatar, dispute second spot in the group in a crucial game also today Sunday.
And more good news, Fajardo is already practicing with the squad and could conceivably join the team in more important games ahead possibly with medals at stake.
After all the roadblocks early on, could this team pull off the biggest surprise and win the gold?
Well, that would be the biggest, most welcome surprise that they could give the nation.