FIBA Asia Cup

Gilas Pilipinas: Welcome to the new age

Naveen Ganglani
Gilas Pilipinas: Welcome to the new age

THE FUTURE. Dwight Ramos (left) and Angelo Kouame play beyond their years.

FIBA

For at least one night, Filipinos saw all the markings of a Philippine team to be proud of: unrelenting, unwavering, and unflappable

The storybook ending of Gilas’ triumphant victory over forever rival South Korea was magical in so many ways. 

Only four days after the country’s 123rd year of Independence from Spain, SJ Belangel etched his name in the history books of Philippine sports by perfectly kissing a basketball off the backboard in Clark, Pampanga, leading to jubilation for a hoops-loving nation that has waited eight long years to deal the Korean team another taste of its own painful medicine. 

In a contest that wasn’t even supposed to be close to begin with – oddsmakers pegged the Filipinos as nine-point underdogs – the Philippines’ inspirational performance highlighted important realizations. 

One of those is that for as bright as the future already looks for the young squad SBP put together to represent flag and country, the final product can still surpass expectations. Because for at least one night, millions of Filipinos watching from their homes already saw all the markings of a Philippine team to grow old with and be proud of: unrelenting, unwavering, and unflappable. 

On one side was a squad of collegiate standouts, young men who legally aren’t old enough to buy their own beers in other parts of the world – although one can safely say Belangel should never have to pay for a San Miguel the rest of his life. 

On the other side was a team led by Korean Basketball League (KBL) pro standouts who, by the time the contest flipped in the third quarter, faced the destructive intensity of a Tab Baldwin-coached defense. 

Suddenly, the easy pathways for Korea to score were deterred by arms, limbs, sweat, effort, and ferocity. They were shellshocked, and by the time they caught their bearings, there was enough momentum and belief on Gilas’ side to enviously imagine a sold-out Filipino crowd screaming at the top of their lungs.

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Belangel sinks buzzer-beater as Gilas Pilipinas stuns Korea

Belangel sinks buzzer-beater as Gilas Pilipinas stuns Korea

Belangel was the hero and rightfully so, but it was a near-flawless team effort that sparked one of the most memorable victories in our country’s never-ending love affair with basketball. That it came against Korea only added to the sweetness, like whipped cream on top of a sundae. The effort alone was satisfying enough. The win – keeping Gilas undefeated in four Group A matches – was a gift from the fates.

Or maybe SJ is the gift.  

Throughout the contest – a tale of two halves – Belangel was the calming presence in Baldwin’s meticulously-schemed system. He found openings to penetrate when they were available, impressively scaled back their pace when it bordered on recklessness, and took the responsibility of being “the man” when all the chips were on the table.

Ange Kouame, a naturalized Filipino, played former PBA import Ricardo Ratliffe to a standstill, while showing off an expanded range that will give seven other UAAP head coaches sleepless nights. Korea gave him enough time to order a pizza with all the room they offered him to shoot, and he made them pay for it, with each make only increasing his confidence. 

Dwight Ramos is good enough that’s it’s almost unfair Ateneo will have a pro-level standout playing in college when the UAAP returns. Carl Tamayo displayed post moves advanced for a talent his age and provided glimpses of a future King Maroon for the University of the Philippines. 

RJ Abarrientos, even if he made two bad offensive decisions late in the game, teased the same type of speed and playmaking that made his uncle Johnny a PBA legend. Justine Baltazar is developing the skillset of a wing-player that should make a lot of people in Taft Avenue happy. 

Kai Sotto, who looked anxious to start the game, composed himself in the second period and showed exactly why the hopes and dreams of an entire country rides on his widening shoulders. Just the 7-foot-3 presence alone of the 19-year-old wunderkid impacted the competition the moment he started letting the game come to him instead of forcing the action. 

The potential, as it has always been, remains limitless. 

And how about the guy who put it all together?  

At this point, it should be without question that the future of Philippine basketball is led by the beautiful basketball mind of Tab Baldwin. His resume – highlighted by podium finishes and motivational Cinderella runs – is enough credibility. 

That he spearheaded a young team in the midst of a pandemic to believe they’re good enough to take down a superior opponent should end any debate, if there’s even any left. 

And let’s get this straight: when Baldwin talks basketball – such as what local coaches can do to improve – he should be listened to, not frowned upon. Hurt feelings don’t bring results, but being uncomfortable leads to growth and development. Baldwin’s never been one to hide frank words behind a curtain of politically correct statements, but his actions, specifically game results, have always spoken louder.

And it’s worth saying that the players of his Ateneo teams have always adored him, for they know that under his leadership, he can unlock parts of their game they didn’t even think were possible to manifest. The 63-year-old head coach has the rare ability to get a group of talented standouts together, temper their ego, and develop a system that’s better than the sum of its individual parts.

When it all comes together, like it did Wednesday night, it’s a sight to behold. 

Korea threatened to pull off another heartbreaker, rallying from a deficit in the final minutes to build a five-point lead of their own.

But there would be no quit in Gilas.

Their effort alone led to free throws, which Baltazar and Ramos converted.

They got a stop, then Belangel got the lead. 

They got another stop, and Kouame imposed his will.

But the door was open, and unsurprisingly, Korea tied the game. The ball looked good the moment it left Hyunjung Lee’s hands.

Of course, it did.

Only two seconds remained. A hero was required.

A hero delivered.

No heartbreak this time.

Welcome to the new age. – Rappler.com