MANILA, Philippines – Kiefer Ravena’s prayer sailed for an eternity.
It had so many things riding on it: from his personal redemption, to a memory for Philippine basketball, to providing a distraction.
After all the breaks Gilas received against Angola, there was one more present: with 7.7 seconds left in overtime, Carlos Morais split his free throws, 84-81. Suddenly, 6.9 seconds remained. The clock was moving fast, but each second felt longer than usual. Maybe, it was because hearts were palpitating in the country, and from the many Filipinos who supported the national team in Foshan, and from each player wearing the country’s name across his chest.
Ravena brought the ball down in a hurry, and had CJ Perez running down the other lane. The same Perez who had the game of his life as the whole basketball world puts its collective eyes on China. The same Perez who hit a balls-y three-pointer to send the game to overtime to begin with.
In his third game back since the 18-month suspension concluded, Ravena instead set himself up for a game-tying attempt. Make it, and he turns from being the martyr to being the hero. Make it, and his mistakes are forgiven. Make it, and he changes the narrative.
Make it, and they win.
“Uhm… it would have been the world to us,” Ravena said a few minutes later as he fought back tears.
Yes, it would have been.
It’s okay to say Ravena failed to make the smartest choice by attempting the contested game-tying triple against 3 defenders, not when an open Perez could have unleashed a better attempt from downtown, or since Ravena had missed a number of shots in prior possessions.
But to fault Ravena for taking the shot is to criticize him for leaning on his natural instinct.
To take the big shot.
The shots he’s attempted and made countless of times in the past is one of the many reasons why he was selected to be on the final roster, even if he wasn’t in the best playing shape.
Unfortunately, sometimes, he misses. This was one of those times, and instead of bringing home a win from international basketball’s biggest stage – not better than the last time, but not worse, too – the Philippine basketball team will return with a 0-3 record in the group phase, the lowest amongst their peers, and failing to capitalize on the momentum they built from 2014.
Even if the final result was reversed, the stark difference between Gilas and the higher-ranked teams of FIBA would have still been a problem. The beatings from Italy and Serbia were enough proof. That one win would have been a temporary Band-Aid on their overall performance review, and the consequent repercussions that will come from it.
Most of all, the victory over Angola would have been thrilling.
As much as you’d watch Gilas Pilipinas until the very last second, even you will admit having a say on the game’s final result is better than playing catch-up for 40 minutes. Like a hamster running on a wheel, the process is exhausting, which is why the games against Italy and Serbia were disheartening. Every few shots teased a comeback, only to be shattered by the bigger and better opposition, over and over again.
The matchup against Angola had the makings of a classic: a back and forth duel, with both teams playing for their country’s pride. The opponents went ahead by 12 in the fourth quarter, but led by their youth, Gilas made a comeback and even took the lead. It was riveting basketball, the kind that would be fun to watch on replay years from today.
And it would have been perfect, if not for the game’s final score. Gilas had its opportunities, but Angola was unwilling to succumb, battling back each time to retake momentum of the contest.
Blatche was stupendous with 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 steals. His performance was a throwback to his version from 5 years ago which was remarkable to watch. He had played below standard in the past two games, but was playing to redeem himself against Angola with the kind of effort Filipinos can be proud of. Like everyone else, age has caught up to the big guy, as he was clearly winded by the final minutes of the high-pressure matchup.
There have been questions about whether or not he cares enough each time he puts on the Gilas jersey.
Today, he proved he does.
The Philippines played Angola neck and neck, though one of the reasons why the latter was in better position to succeed was because their team played the style of basketball that works best in FIBA. Filipino style of play is beautiful in its own way, with more physicality and unpredictability, but it hasn’t translated to international success in the past few decades.
Slowly by slowly, the Philippines is getting there. More basketball talents are earning headlines with each passing year, and with the use of technology, young Filipino players have more access to data about the sport than ever before. Perez and Robert Bolick are proof of that – all-around players who can score at will, find open teammates, and play defense the modern way. After the tricks he picked up against the world’s best big man, June Mar Fajardo will return to Philippine basketball an even more complete package. Those 3, plus RR Pogoy, Troy Rosario, and, yes, even Kiefer Ravena, present the immediate future of the Gilas program.
Is it perfect? Maybe not. But it’s a good start.
Especially with the challenges ahead.
For instance, will coach Yeng Guiao return to lead this team? In the last 5 years, Gilas has had 3 head coaches. One of them, currently dominating college basketball at Ateneo, has a very strong case to get the job, if it becomes vacant. This much is for sure: for the coaching situation, continuity will be key. It’s about time Philippine basketball, the entirety of it, committed to winning internationally. That starts with constructing a reliable, long-term system.
Next, what about the naturalized player? Maybe Blatche will return for one more go, and hopefully, get a happy ending to the relationship for both sides. In the long run, though, who takes over his spot? Will SBP find another former NBA player? Will one of the recent imports who dominated in the PBA get an opportunity? In this case, there are more questions than answers.
Depending on how the remainder of the World Cup goes, the Philippines still has an opportunity to earn a ticket to Tokyo for the Olympics. If Gilas somehow qualifies, the timetable for preparations will be short and rushed, issues that hurt this current roster.
Winning against Angola would have been a reason to be happy amidst the upcoming chaos. Few things in the world are more powerful than a happy memory, and this would have been a great one.
"I've never been emotional, you all know me,” Ravena told the Philippine media post-game. “But we've been under so much criticism that we really wanted to win this game. But that's what it is – breaks of the game."
Gilas was right there.
Unwilling to stay down.
On top in the 4th quarter and overtime.
All for one not-so-meaningless win.
For pride and country.
But the prayer wasn’t answered.