MANILA, Philippines—Inside the China dugout Friday night, players sat weeping while some stared blankly in stunned silence. In one corner, star Yi Jianlian sat crossed legs as wordless as the rest of the teammates. For several minutes, the team shut the doors of their locker room at Mall of Asia Arena, wanting some time to process things.
When the doors flung open, Panagiotis Giannakis stepped out along with veteran Wang Zhizhi and headed for the post-game press conference. Once in the podium, all they could offer was an apologetic promise of things getting better.
“It’s time to go back and reflect on the lessons we learned,” said Wang in Chinese.
“Please have patience,” he implored through an interpreter. “China basketball will move forward.
“I want to [extend an apology] to China fans because I know they love the team,” said Giannakis. “But they have to continue to love the team because I believe that we can change.”
China had looked far from defending champion form throughout the tournament. But it was always thought that they would flex their muscles once the knockout phase came along.
They did. For a half, at least.
And then Chinese Taipei, with an iron will forged through come-from-behind victories over Jordan and Gilas Pilipinas, torched a ten-point deficit with a 31-12 flamethrower in the third period and sent the Great Wall crumbling in a monumental collapse with a masterful 96-78 victory that arranged a semifinal duel with heavyweight Iran.
It was the first victory by Chinese Taipei over China’s team A in a long while—with some Taiwanese reporters saying it was the first ever. And the moment wasn’t lost on the team.
“It’s a magical day,” said Hsu Chin-che, the Taiwanese coach.
“I’ve played for the national team for a long time and it’s always been a blowout [against China],” the charismatic Tien Lei said through an interpreter. “Sometimes, in the first or second quarter, it was already over. So this means a lot to be in the Final Four of the Fiba Asia for the first time.”
“We just used this game to prove ourselves to everybody else,” said guard Hung Chih Shan, who nailed a three-point heave from near midcourt at the buzzer to trim China’s halftime edge to 10, something that gave the team confidence that they could actually pull this one off.
“I told the team that against Jordan, we were down 11 and against Philippines, we were down 13. Both times, we won. Now, it’s just a 10-point lead. We have a chance,” Hsu said.
For China, everything went downhill after that Hung triple.
“All our problems started in the second half,” said Wang.
China could not get its scoring going. Worse, Chinese Taipei punched holes in its defense with ease. As brick after brick led to Taiwanese points in transition or booming treys off halfcourt sets, China grew desperate. Yi played with no relief in the second half as he was the only one who was making shots.
Yi finished with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
Taiwan’s naturalized player, Quincy Davis III, negated that with 26 points and 10 boards.
“It was my best game in this tournament,” a beaming Davis told reporters after the match.
Tsai Wen-cheng had 21 points after being used sparingly in the tournament. Star Lin Chih-chieh added 17. Tien chipped in 13 while hung added 11.
Wang Shipeng added 17 for China while Wang Zhelin added 11.
“Once they started scoring, we dug ourselves a hole,” said Wang Zhizhi.
“It was a very bad night for us,” admitted Giannakis.
And so as Team China quietly shuffled out of the locker room, its morale in tatters, all that was left for the team to hang on to was a message of hope preached by its coach.
“If you want to change something, you have to suffer,” said Giannakis. “We have to stay focused. I believe we can change this team.”