A little over a month removed from a lackluster World Cup campaign and some 1,700 kilometers away from home, Gilas Pilipinas finally found a reason to celebrate.
The Nationals, hastily assembled and sent to a long and arduous route in the 19th Asian Games (Asiad), saved their best for last on Friday night and thumped Jordan, 70-60, to capture the country’s first basketball gold in over six decades.
“Our guys were just really disciplined tonight,” national coach Tim Cone told reporters before hurrying towards the team dugout at Hangzhou Olympic Centre Gymnasium in China to join in the revelry after a campaign that will be talked about for ages.
“It was just a good game by us tonight and they (Jordan) had an off shooting night,” he went on.
That “good game” was built on yet another huge night by Justin Brownlee, who finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, and the timely breakout outings of Ange Kouame and Chris Newsome, who chipped in 14 and 13 points, respectively.
Gilas was just as commendable on defense, holding the erstwhile unbeaten Falcons to just 26-percent shooting from the field—their worst in the continental showcase that came at a time when they were also shooting for their first cage gold.
“I think we did a good job recovering (Sami) Bzai, not letting him get a lot of looks, and that was one of the keys,” Cone said.
First since Loyzaga time
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson practically needed to bleed for his 24 points to lead Jordan, which bamboozled the Philippines by 25 points in group play last week. But with just Freddy Ibrahim the only other player finishing in twin digits, the Falcons settled for a bridesmaid finish.
“I know it’s no gold for Jordan. It would’ve been their first. Good for both of us,” Cone said with a smirk.
Scottie Thompson had 11 points, five rebounds and three assists in the triumph that gave the country its first Asiad basketball gold since late Fiba Hall of Famer Carlos Loyzaga and his crew did it in Jakarta, Indonesia, back in 1962.
Overall, the Philippines now has five basketball titles.
But what truly makes this victory even sweeter was the way it was forged: through sacrifice.
Cone was appointed coach on Sept. 7, just 19 days before the tournament (See pregame story in Sports, Page A10). Half of the players also came late, prompting pundits and this basketball-crazed country’s fans to write off this very squad even before its first game.
But perhaps, CJ Perez said it best on his way to the team’s celebrations.
“Nakabakasyon na, nanalo pa!” (We won while practically on vacation.)
Friday night’s feat was also a vindication in a lot of ways for a program that was maligned after a dismal World Cup campaign that saw a different bunch of Nationals win just one game, a 20-point destruction of bitter regional rival China in the classification.
That team had Utah Jazz star Jordan Clarkson as its naturalized player and a lot of aces playing overseas as a support cast.
It suffered close shaves in the group stage as folks turned to social media to blast then coach Chot Reyes.
Tim’s sweet revenge
Cone, for his part, also erased the stigma of a 1998 bronze medal finish when he handled the highly touted Centennial Team that bowed out in the semifinals against the Chinese in the Beijing Games.
He got his sweet revenge over the Chinese in a “miracle” 77-76 win in the Final Four just two nights before where Brownlee erupted for 17 points in the fourth quarter to fuel a finish like no other and set up the rematch with the Jordanians.
That semifinal win made the Filipinos the villains in the progressive Chinese city, as fans booed every Brownlee possession and cheered every Gilas miss from the free-throw line even if the home nation played in the bronze medal match against Chinese Taipei earlier.
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“It was our defensive adjustments, we defended them differently,” Brownlee answered when asked of what the key to the turnaround was compared to the group play loss. “It feels great. I feel so happy, not only for myself but also for the Philippines.“
Happy for Tim, he avenged his loss in 1998. He came here to win the gold,” he went on. “I am very happy for the people back home.”