For better or for worse: Moments that defined Gilas Pilipinas in 2019

Delfin Dioquino
For better or for worse: Moments that defined Gilas Pilipinas in 2019
From finishing last in the FIBA World Cup to winning another gold in the Southeast Asian Games, it was a roller-coaster year for Gilas Pilipinas

MANILA, Philippines – Gilas Pilipinas’ journey in 2019 had been filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

From finishing last in the FIBA World Cup to reestablishing its dominance in the region with another gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games, it was a roller-coaster year for the country in the international stage.

Here are the moments that defined Gilas Pilipinas in 2019 – for better or for worse: 

Andray Blatche. Photo from fiba.basketball

Blatche back

Gilas Pilipinas’ chances of reaching the World Cup were put into peril when it went winless in the fifth window of the Asian Qualifiers late in 2018, losing two home games against Iran and Kazakhstan

In those two losses, the Philippines played with an all-Filipino lineup even with naturalized player Andray Blatche already completing his three-game FIBA suspension by the time it hosted Kazakhstan.

Those heartbreaking defeats served as a reality check for former national team coach Yeng Guiao, who called up Blatche for the sixth and final window in February 2019. 

Blatche proved of big help to Gilas Pilipinas as he delivered 17 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks in an 84-46 romp of Qatar. 

He then saved his best for last in the Asian Qualifiers, dropping 41 points, 13 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks in a 93-75 win over Kazakhstan as the Philippines punched its ticket back to the World Cup. 

Gilas Pilipinas. Photo from fiba.basketball

Dead-last

The national team encountered the same problem it faced in the Asian Qualifiers as it geared up for the World Cup: lack of preparation time. 

With the PBA Commissioner’s Cup finals still ongoing between San Miguel and TNT, June Mar Fajardo, Roger Pogoy, and Troy Rosario were forced to miss Gilas Pilipinas’ training camp in Spain. 

By the time the trio rejoined the team, there was only less than two weeks before the World Cup kicked off in China in August. 

Health also played a crucial part in the makeup of the team as it missed Marcio Lassiter, Matthew Wright, and Poy Erram to injuries. 

With everything factored in, Guiao and his staff chose Fajardo, Pogoy, Rosario, Blatche, Kiefer Ravena, Gabe Norwood, Japeth Aguilar, Raymond Almazan, Mark Barroca, Paul Lee, CJ Perez, and Robert Bolick for the final lineup

CJ Perez. Photo from fiba.basketball

Following the Philippines’ inspiring showing in the 2014 World Cup – where it pushed Croatia, Argentina, and Puerto Rico to the limit before winning against Senegal – there were hopes it could do the same in 2019. 

But that was far from what happened as Gilas Pilipinas opened its campaign with back-to-back blowout losses to European powerhouses Italy and Serbia, getting demolished by a combined 105 points. 

In its best chance to notch a win, the Philippines fell short and suffered a heartbreaking overtime loss to Angola to wrap up the group stage. 

Robert Bolick. Photo from fiba.basketball

Gilas Pilipinas still had two chances in the classification stage to avoid returning home without a victory, but triumph remained elusive as it got clobbered by Tunisia and Iran by a combined 39 points. 

Accumulating a point differential of -147 points, the Philippines hit rock bottom and finished dead-last among the 32 participating nations.

Tim Cone. Photo by Jerrick Reymarc/Rappler

Cone in, Guiao out

Drama followed Gilas Pilipinas after the World Cup as Guiao immediately stepped down from his post as head coach and took the blame for the winless stint. 

“I knew what conditions existed, what the limitations were, and still, I accepted the challenge. I hold myself responsible for the consequences,” Guiao said. 

But Guiao was quick to point out he did not regret taking over the team, which was hobbled by suspension following the infamous Philippines-Australia brawl.  

Yeng Guiao. Photo from fiba.basketball

“Even if I had known from the beginning that this would be the end result of my decision to accept this coaching job, I would have had no second thoughts in making the same decision,” he said.

Guiao’s resignation forced the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) to hurriedly find a new head coach for the national team less than 3 months before the country hosted the 2019 SEA Games. 

Two weeks later, the SBP announced Tim Cone officially accepted the job as Gilas Pilipinas head coach. 

Just like last time he called the shots for the Philippines in the 1998 Asian Games with the vaunted Centennial Team, Cone built a team of PBA superstars.

That move veered away from the practice of sending amateur players to the SEA Games, underlining the Philippines’ desire to reassert its mastery in the region after floundering in the World Cup. 

Gilas Pilipinas. Photo by Jerrick Reymar/Rappler

Golden campaign

Sending an all-pro team for the first time in SEA Games history, Gilas Pilipinas unsurprisingly breezed through the competition en route to its 13th straight gold medal and 18th overall. 

Every game, the Philippines reminded its opponents how miles ahead it is in terms of size, skill, and talent. 

It started with a 52-point blowout of Singapore, followed by a 41-point drubbing of Vietnam, and a 69-point crushing of Myanmar to end the preliminary round. 

Gilas Pilipinas then handed Indonesia a 27-point beating in the semifinals before manhandling Thailand by 34 points in the final to capture the gold. 

Several players shone in the SEA Games, particularly Gilas Pilipinas first-timer Vic Manuel, who drew comparison with NBA star Nikola Jokic as he led the team in scoring with an average of 15.6 points. 

Vic Manuel. Photo by Jerrick Reymarc/Rappler

There were a lot of firsts in the biennial meet for the national team with Manuel, Fajardo, Wright, Lassiter, Aguilar, Stanley Pringle, LA Tenorio, and Chris Ross winning their maiden SEA Games gold medal. 

It was also only the first time Cone – whose illustrious coaching career is highlighted by 21 PBA championships, 3 PBA Coach of the Year awards, and 2 Grand Slams – won a gold medal. 

Ravena, meanwhile, extended his record of most SEA Games basketball gold medals with a fifth straight. 

Isaac Go. Photo from PBA Images

Building for the future

With the Philippines co-hosting the 2023 World Cup with Japan and Indonesia, the SBP – as early as now – has started laying the foundation for the team that will see action in the global hoops showdown. 

The SBP and the PBA agreed to have 5 players from the recently concluded PBA draft to be loaned to the national team.

Those players turned out to be Isaac Go (Columbian), Rey Suerte (Blackwater), Matt Nieto (NLEX), Allyn Bulanadi (Alaska), and Mike Nieto (Rain or Shine). 

It is still uncertain, though, who will coach the national team as Cone made it clear that he was just filling in for the SEA Games. 

Up next for Gilas Pilipinas is the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, where it will play Thailand and Indonesia in home-and-away games in February. – Rappler.com

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Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.