Sometime last night, August 30, in the middle of all the hysteria and all the screaming of Filipinos all over the world, a baffled Croatian locker room was wondering, “Who are these guys?”
Overheard in the Croatian locker room: "Who ARE these guys?!" Haha! World, introducing: Philippine Basketball! #LabanPilipinas !— Carlo Singson (@SingsonCarlo) August 30, 2014
Croatia, ranked the fourth best basketball team in Europe, was locked in a battle against a team composed of undersized guys from the Philippines along with NBA veteran Andray Blatche, who has been laughed at for his antics more than admired for his skills during his time in the league.
It was supposed to be an easy win for Croatia. They went up by as much as 15 early, and looked poised to open the 2014 FIBA World Cup with a tireless victory. But then a five-foot-nine guard named Jimmy Alapag hit a three while getting fouled, converting a four-point play in the process. And then a guy named Jeff Chan knocked in one 3-ball after another, further slicing the Croatians’ once comfortable margin.
And then Blatche, a free agent who has yet to sign with an NBA team for the upcoming season, started looking like a different version of himself. He was no longer settling for tough jumpers. He was hitting threes, putting up step-back Js, converting in the paint, and putting up floaters en route to 28 points to go with his 12 rebounds, while going head to head with Bojan Bogdanovic (26 points), the guy whom the Brooklyn Nets signed in the offseason, essentially, to replace Blatche.
Suddenly, Croatia’s lead was down to 6 at the half. In the fourth quarter, they entered with an eight-point lead thanks to some shaky officiating – a flopping call against Jayson Castro led to 2 Croatia free throws and a three pointer – to end the prior period. But that didn’t matter as well.
The team called Gilas Pilipinas kept fighting. They were clawing for every rebound despite their size disadvantage. They were diving on the floor for loose balls. They were hitting three-pointer after three-pointer. They just would not stop, even capturing a three-point lead with two minutes remaining in regulation.
When the game was finally over, and Croatia barely managed to secure a victory, it must have felt like a relief. They had barely survived the team that kept fighting, the team that would just not give up, the team that arrived on Saturday night.
Gilas wound up losing, 81-78. But on Saturday night, the Philippines felt like winners.
For Croatia, they will remember it as a game they nearly blew, or a wake-up call early in the World Cup.
But for the Philippines, they will remember Saturday, August 30, as the day their team proved they belong in the global scene of basketball.
Say hello to Gilas Pilipinas
Hours before the game, it didn’t feel like just another Saturday.
There was something special brewing in the air. There was excitement and anticipation. History was about to be made.
The Philippine men’s national basketball team was going to be in the FIBA World Cup for the first time in 36 years. The fact that Gilas Pilipinas, whose roster so many have come to adore and admire in the past year, was about to go toe to toe against the athletes Filipino fans grew up idolizing was awe-inspiring in itself.
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It was no secret the competition was going to be top notch. Gilas, on the other hand, was new to the world stage. They were playing with a naturalized import they had practiced with for several weeks. They were playing on soil outside of Asia for a change.
Filipino fans knew the odds were stacked against them but that didn’t stop them from cheering their hearts out for the team that has made them feel so proud on so many occasions. But what not many of them expected –Croatia included – was that by the time the final buzzer would sound they’d have survived a life-and-death struggle with the FIBA Asia runner-ups.
Maybe Croatia just had a bad game overall, while Gilas got lucky with shots that typically don’t go in against taller opponents. If Gilas wets the bed against Greece on Monday, September 1, some will consider Philippines’ performance against Croatia a fluke.
Then again, it could also be a sign of things to come, and there’s no reason to think it can’t be – most especially with the versatile big man up front who looked like a machine against the Croatians.
It was easy to doubt how much Blatche would contribute to the Philippines entering the World Cup. After all, his rap sheet of incidents speaks for itself. The fact that he replaced a long-time favorite in Marcus Douthit added fuel to the fire as well. Would he show as much puso (heart) as Douthit did? Will he be in top shape come the World Cup? Will he learn to love the Philippines and its people despite having spent just two days in the country?
All of those questions were answered against Croatia,
Puso (heart). It’s the mantra Gilas lives by. And the big guy made sure to show so much of it on Saturday night. Whether or not the Philippines goes on to win a game or two the rest of the way, Filipinos will always have the memory of watching an outsider win the hearts of an entire nation with one game. No, Blatche doesn’t have Philippine blood, but against Croatia, he showed the pride and heart of a Filipino.
Of course, there were the other guys as well who should be noted. Chan was hitting treys all game long to finish with 17 points and could have nailed the game winner at the end of regulation had he not through suffered through cramps – a shot that had it gone in, Chan would have never had to pay for his beer in the Philippines ever again.
Marc Pingris fought and clawed for every rebound, every loose ball. And under the rim against the Goliaths of Croatia, he was pulling out all of his crafty moves to get a decent attempt. Not all went in, but the undersized, six-foot-six power forward never gave up, as he finished with 10 markers.
Alapag was spectacular as well. His four-point play started the team’s run in the second quarter. And whenever he was on the court, there was a feeling that the offense was going to be fine. Gabe Norwood was doing as much as he could to limit Croatia’s perimeter players, Castro (or Jayson William in international competition) was fearless every time he forayed into the teeth of the opposition’s defense, and a case can be made that he was fouled at the end of overtime – the defender did not give him the necessary space to land after the shot attempt – which should have awarded him a chance to tie the game at the free throw line – another of the game’s series of bad officiating.
“Unfortunately we lost today but today’s game confirms how much I trust my teammates. We fought until the end against a much stronger opponent and we had also the final shot to win it,” Blatche told Sportnado.com after the game
“I felt good, we must play again like today without being afraid of our opponents. In addition to points and rebounds my task is also to give confidence to my teammates. I am very optimistic for the next games, Philippines will continue to impress as today and we want to make out great fans happier than today.”
The world now knows who Gilas Pilipinas is. They may still be far away from reaching the level of powerhouse teams like Spain, France, and USA, but no longer are they just another team from Asia. The times are changing. Gilas Pilipinas is on the rise.
Before Saturday night’s epic encounter, it was clear that history would be made. For many Filipinos, just being at the World Cup was already remarkable feat.
But Gilas’ soldiers set the bar a notch higher. Last night, they made politicians, celebrities, athletes, and almost everyone else in the country tweet, scream, celebrate, and beam with absolute pride. Some hugged, some cried. For a few hours in time, everyone in the world cheering their lungs out for the Philippine team felt like one.
August 30 will no longer be remembered just as the day Gilas made it to the World Cup.
August 30 will be the day Gilas made their presence felt on the world stage. August 30 will be a day many sports junkies and Filipinos will never forget. August 30 will go down in the history books as the day the Philippines proved they belong in the global scene of basketball.
The Philippines has arrived.
Laban Pilipinas. – Rappler.com
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