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BULACAN, Philippines – Jordan Clarkson fouled out when it mattered most and Gilas Pilipinas bowed to Dominican Republic, 87-81, in its FIBA World Cup opener before a record crowd at the Philippine Arena on Friday, August 25.
The NBA star posted all-around numbers with 28 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals but got the boot with 3:30 minutes left as majority of the 38,115 fans – a World Cup mark – returned home in disappointment.
Winless in five games in the last World Cup in China where it finished last out of 32 teams, the Philippines looked primed for a breakthrough under the right conditions.
The Philippines hosted the global hoops showpiece for the first time since 1978 and put together arguably its most talented lineup led by Utah Jazz standout Clarkson.
But Dominican Republic and Minnesota Timberwolves stalwart Karl-Anthony Towns proved why they are touted as favorites to reach the second round out of Group A.
Towns – playing for Dominican Republic for the first time in a decade – churned out a 26-point, 10-rebound double-double and delivered down the stretch.
A three-time NBA All-Star, Towns scored 4 straight points that gave his side an 81-76 lead before buckets from Victor Liz and Lester Quiñones sealed the deal for the Dominicans.
“We were right there. One break here or there, one call here or there, it might have been a different story,” said Philippines head coach Chot Reyes.
“Just very unfortunate that we came up short.”
Veteran June Mar Fajardo and youngster AJ Edu both turned in perfect shooting performances while being tasked to defend the seven-foot Towns, who made up for his 5-of-16 shooting from the field with a 15-of-16 clip at the line.
Fajardo put up 16 points on a 5-of-5 outing to go with 7 rebounds, while Edu made all of his three shots and scored 7 points with 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Towns, though, still earned the last laugh as Dominican Republic gained a share of the lead in Group A with Italy, which pulled off an 81-67 win over Angola earlier in the day.
Liz backstopped Towns with 18 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals, figuring prominently anew two years after leading the Dominicans to a 94-67 blowout of the Filipinos in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Serbia.
Andres Feliz also starred in the victory by tallying 12 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds.
Living up to its billing as a basketball-crazy nation, the Philippines went all out on Day 1, tapping pop star Sarah Geronimo and bands Ben&Ben and The Dawn to perform in the opening ceremony staged before the game.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who suspended classes and government work in Bulacan and Metro Manila on Friday specifically for the World Cup, then showed up and led the partisan crowd in cheering for Gilas Pilipinas.
Marcos and fans in attendance were on the verge of witnessing the Philippines nail its first World Cup win since 2014 after Clarkson sank a pair of free throws for a 72-69 lead with seven minutes left.
But Dominican Republic closed it out on an 18-9 run, taking advantage when Clarkson got eliminated following his offensive foul on Liz.
“It was such a letdown that we could not pull it out. It would have been a great gift for the record number of people who came out,” said Reyes.
Dwight Ramos chimed in 13 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 steals in the loss, while Roger Pogoy added 6 points and 4 rebounds.
Saddled by early foul trouble, Kai Sotto played just 1:13 minutes in the opening quarter and sat out the rest of the way as Reyes opted to go with Fajardo, Edu, and Japeth Aguilar to share defensive duties against Towns.
Gilas Pilipinas will try to end its six-game World Cup skid as it battles Angola at the Araneta Coliseum on Sunday, August 27.
Dominican Republic 87 – Towns 26, Liz 18. Feliz 12, Delgado 6, Montero 6, Figueroa 5, Peña 5, Vargas 5, Mendoza 2, Quiñones 2, Solano 0.
Philippines 81 – Clarkson 28, Fajardo 16, Ramos 13, Edu 7, Pogoy 6, Thompson 5, Abando 2, Aguilar 2, Ravena 2, Malonzo 0, Sotto 0.
Quarters: 22-18, 42-42, 66-64, 87-81.