Philippine basketball

Gilas getting there, but not quite yet after historic Olympic qualifiers stint

Ariel Ian Clarito

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Gilas getting there, but not quite yet after historic Olympic qualifiers stint

ALL SMILES. Justin Brownlee (32) and Kai Sotto (11) in action for Gilas Pilipinas in the 2024 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers.

FIBA

Gilas Pilipinas achieved historic feats in the 2024 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, but it must not forget to further strengthen its foundations moving forward into what is deemed a bright future

MANILA, Philippines – For three nights on the first week of July, Filipino basketball fans cheered on Gilas Pilipinas who went toe-to-toe with some of the top teams in the world in the FIBA Paris Olympic Qualifying Tournament held in Riga, Latvia.

Those three nights allowed Filipinos to hope for something that previously seemed unreachable – the right to be one of the 12 teams in the Paris Olympics.

For some, hope was the point of it all, a glimmer that people could hold on to that rekindled their love and passion for the national team, a flicker that showed that the Philippines could be competitive against the world’s best.

For coach Tim Cone, however, the campaign in Riga was a mission unaccomplished. The goal was not merely to show that Gilas Pilipinas could keep in step with competition.

The prize was never just the journey nor the learning experience. The prize was to win it all and make it to Paris. Cone regarded “almost winning” for what it truly is – a loss.

That kind of mentality, perhaps, is the game changer that allowed Gilas Pilipinas to go as far as it did in the qualifiers.

Whereas before, the objective when facing world class teams was not to get blown off the court or keep the score close, then try to steal a win in the end. This time around, Gilas Pilipinas came out throwing haymakers with an eye on knocking down their foes.

Mindset change

The desire to win had always been there even for previous iterations of Gilas Pilipinas. This was true for the Yeng Guiao-mentored squad in the 2019 World Cup even as they lost all five games by an average of 29.4 points.

This was also true when Chot Reyes handled the team that could win only once in five games despite the support of the home crowd in the 2023 FIBA World Cup.

The difference this time around is that aside from the desire to win, Cone has been able to instill in this current Gilas Pilipinas the belief that it could actually win.

After Cone steered Gilas Pilipinas to an unexpected gold in the Asian Games last year, the first time the country bagged the top plum since 1962, the logical next step would have been to attempt to regain Asian basketball supremacy by winning the 2025 FIBA Asia Cup in Saudi Arabia.

It was a prudent objective for Gilas, one that would still require a ton of effort considering how the team has fared against Asian rivals in the last 10 years.

Since 2015, the Philippines has lost its head-to-head battles against South Korea (2 wins, 6 losses), Lebanon (2 wins, 5 losses), and Jordan (4 wins, 6 losses).

The only teams that Gilas has consistently defeated are fading Asian giants Iran (5 wins, 4 losses) and China (4 wins, 3 losses). Gilas also has a 6-1 record against emerging Asian power Japan, but Japan won the last encounter in 2022 by 21 points.

There was always a sense of foreboding in the past every time Gilas Pilipinas faced Australia or New Zealand. There was a quiet resignation that they were bigger, more organized, more athletic, and did everything better than Gilas Pilipinas.

Australia had beaten the Philippines by an average of 24.6 points in three matches in the last 10 years. Since 2013, New Zealand has prevailed over the Philippines five times by an average winning margin of 19.6 points.

Giant killers

It is no longer unreasonable to actually aim to defeat the Boomers and the Tall Blacks. This proposition will be tested on November 21 when Gilas Pilipinas faces New Zealand in the FIBA Asia Cup qualification. It will not be easy, but it can be done.

It is also no longer foolish to dream even bigger.

Qualifying anew for the 2027 FIBA World Cup in Qatar. Earning a berth in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. Not just making up the numbers in these competitions but actually becoming a legitimate threat that could beat even the best of them.

The blueprint was already laid out in Riga, especially when Gilas Pilipinas stunned world No. 6 and host Latvia, 89-80, before their home fans.

It was a monumental upset against a team that placed fifth in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, only missing out on the semifinals after a heartbreaking 79-81 loss in the quarterfinals to eventual champion Germany.

It was the first win in 64 years by the Philippines over a European team in a FIBA event. From 2014 to 2023, the Philippines had lost 18 straight games to national teams from Europe.

The last time the Philippines chalked up a win over a Euro side was when the RP Selecta team tripped Ukraine, 100-98, in a three-day pocket tournament held in Sondrio, Italy, in June 2002, when Kai Sotto, born on May 11, 2002, was not even a month old yet. Carl Tamayo and Kevin Quiambao were just over a year old.

Establishing continuity

But it is imperative to remain grounded and continue to strengthen the program. After all, to put things in the proper perspective, counting the tuneup games that Gilas Pilipinas played as they prepared for the OQT, the team won just twice in six games.

Three of those losses came against European teams, including the two-point defeat to Georgia. The last was against eventual OQT winner and world No. 12 Brazil in a match where the Philippines led by six points at the half.

It was in that last loss that valuable lessons surfaced.

One is the need for the team to have more depth. Sotto’s absence in the knockout semis versus Brazil took a heavy toll on Cone’s frontline rotation.

AJ Edu will be a welcome addition. But other than Edu, one wonders who else is in the horizon, given that Japeth Aguilar is already 37 and Mason Amos has not gained Cone’s trust yet.

A healthy Scottie Thompson taking turns running the backcourt with Chris Newsome, Dwight Ramos, and CJ Perez will be a luxury that Cone would be only too happy to have.

Gilas Pilipinas did shoot an impressive 46.8% clip from the three-point region in the three games in the Olympic qualifiers.

Adding a shooter or two to the pool will never be a bad idea. Jordan Heading is a solid option. So is Matthew Wright who was the most prolific Filipino last season in the Japan B. League, converting 2.4 triples per game.

The right program is in place, and all indications suggest that this will be sustained. The right coach is at the helm, one who understands the amount of work that still needs to be done.

The world now has taken notice of Gilas Pilipinas. But it takes more than just the right mindset and team culture to become a significant force in the global stage.

Gilas is not there yet, but it is on the right track to get there eventually. – Rappler.com

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