MANILA, Philippines–Larry Fonacier was working out at the hotel gym while the Qatar-Chinese Taipei game was being played on TV. LA Tenorio was in his room, catching up on much-needed rest. Gabe Norwood and Jimmy Alapag? They were in the lobby, along with several other people, cheering for Qatar.
“I didn’t expect the outcome,” said Fonacier of the Qatar victory that gave Gilas Pilipinas the top seed in Group E of the quarterfinal bracket of the FIBA Asia Championship. “It was already playing in our minds that we would be facing China in the quarterfinals.”
You think? Guess what assistant coach Ryan Gregorio was doing when he received the call to complete a scouting report of Kazakhstan?
“I was finishing up the scouting report on China,” said Gregorio, whipping out his tablet and showing the Inquirer that he had about three players to go before completing his report.
Detoured from the original route to the FIBA World Cup it had plotted, Gilas Pilipinas suddenly found itself back on that road, nailing the No. 1 slot and taking on Kazakhstan, obviously the lightest foe from Group F, which is also made up of defending champion China, South Korea and tournament steamroller Iran.
“Qatar did us one big favor,” beamed Marcus Douthit.
Now that the universe unfolded as it should, it’s time for Gilas Pilipinas to do its part. Because one thing’s for sure: Kazakhstan is no pushover.
“We know how dangerous Kazakhstan is as a team and it’s going to take all our effort as a team on Friday to win,” head coach Chot Reyes said after a struggling 67-55 victory over Hong Kong Wednesday evening at the Mall of Asia Arena.
“We still have a job to do,” said Norwood.
While Qatar certainly gave the Philippines a reprieve by rerouting a path that was headed for heavyweight China, it was only because it taped up Gilas Pilipinas’ shredded blueprint. Chinese Taipei’s loss did not necessarily gift the Philippines any advantage.
“When you think of it, all we really achieved is what we set out to do in the first place. We wanted to be No. 1; we wanted Kazakhstan as a quarterfinal opponent,” said former national player Olsen Racela, the San Mig Coffee assistant coach who moonlights as a TV analyst for the tournament. “We really haven’t gained anything yet. We just got back to the original plan.”
“Now, we have to do our part.”
“There’s no way we can go out against Kazakhstan playing the way we did against Hong Kong,” added Racela.
The Philippines went scoreless in the opening minutes against Hong Kong, fell behind by double digits early and needed a huge second half to pull off the win that cemented the No. 1 spot.
It was a win so ugly, defense specialist Marc Pingris waxed philosophical about what needed to be done going into Friday’s 8:30 p.m. showdown against the Kazakhs.
“Kailangan linisin namin ang dumi na ginawa namin (We need to clean the mess we created),” he said.
Pingris is expected to shoulder a huge chunk of the defense in the low block, but the onus for stops will fall on the team’s point guards. Tenorio, Alapag and Jayson Castro will have their hands full trying to contain Kazakhstan dynamo Jerri Jonson.
“He is a perfect fit for them,” said Racela. “They’ve really never had a point guard as skilled and as athletic who can set the other guys up.”
“Right this very moment, [Johnson] is all that I can think of,” said Tenorio. “If I get a chance to play on Friday, my sole focus will be on trying to stop Johnson. Everything starts from him when it comes to Kazakhstan. He’s the engine. He scores and he sets his team up.”
“If I play, my focus will be to pressure him defensively. Never mind the scoring,” added Tenorio, who was asleep when a friend watching the Qatar-Chinese Taipei match phoned him to inform him what had just happened.
The fact that Tenorio and Pingris, who singled out Mikhail Yevstigneyev and Anton Ponomarev as the players he wants to put the cuffs on, were both thinking of Kazakhstan after stepping out of their dugout following that Hong Kong match is a good sign for Reyes.
It means Gilas Pilipinas is mentally prepared to face the tough Kazakhs after already conditioning themselves about playing the Big Red Machine.
“In the end, we still have to take care of business,” said Fonacier. “Either way, the opponent is going to be tough. We just have to show up and play our best.”
“We have to toughen up. Kazakhstan is more physical than any team we’ve played so far so we have to be ready for that,” he added.
“For us, it’s win at all cost,” said Tenorio.