PHILIPPINE basketball can again carry a long-lost, almost forgotten tag: world-class.
In the fight of their lives against a foe that had dealt them so many painful defeats in the past, the Gilas Pilipinas national five overcame South Korea and terrible odds last night to get back into the world championship stage for the first time in 35 years.
With an 86-79 Final Four victory in the 27th Fiba Asia Championship, carved out with naturalized center Marcus Douthit riding the bench because of an injury with still 25 minutes left, Gilas sealed a title clash with Iran today and a stint in the Fiba World Cup in Spain next year.
The Iranians earlier outclassed Chinese Taipei, 79-60, to secure the first title berth (See story on Page A20).
The undersized Filipinos made excellent use of the three-point shot, drove to the basket with reckless abandon and defended like there was no tomorrow in a late spurt that sealed the victory and ignited pandemonium at the packed Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay.
Gilas blew a nine-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter and looked headed for another meltdown in the stretch when it trailed, 73-75, heading into the final 3:41.
But Jimmy Alapag, Ranidel De Ocampo and Marc Pingris, the senior members of the squad, presided over a swashbuckling Gilas finish for the famous win.
And when it was all over and with the capacity crowd erupting into a deafening crescendo, coach Chot Reyes cried unabashedly on the bench with his players doing the same on the floor.
All the bitter defeats in the past since 1986—counting one in 2002 when a late three-pointer in the Busan Asian Games denied the Filipinos of at least a silver medal—will now be forgotten for the moment after Gilas gave Korea a dose of its own medicine.
The Philippines stared at defeat as early as the second quarter when Douthit landed hard after a short stab against two defenders, wincing in pain with still five minutes left and the score 28-26 in favor of the Koreans.
But instead of rolling over and giving up, the Filipinos dug deep and kept the deficit to just three at halftime.
The Filipinos played the zone and were in their skates at the start of the third period where Jason Castro scored six straight points and Pingris had a tip-in. Castro drained a trey to cap an 11-0 salvo that made it 47-39.
The Koreans missed their first six shots in the third period and were befuddled when their outside guns were jammed by the zone.
“To all who have supported us, who prayed for us, you are the ones who give us strength,” a tearful Pingris told a packed press room in Filipino. “It was all about heart for us. We are willing to die for our cause.”
Team Philippines was still on top by five, 73-68, heading into the final 4:53 when Kim Ming-goo completed a rare four-point play before the Mohawk-haired Lee Seung-jun had a breakaway dunk and a free throw that gave the Koreans that two-point lead.
Alapag, as if on cue, took the game into his hands, rifling in a triple before Kim Tae-sook put the Koreans on the lead for the last time with a layup with 2:38 left.
De Ocampo, who also cried during the interview, then hit a high-looping layup and then a triple that made it 81-77.
GILAS PILIPINAS 86—Castro 17, Pingris 16, Alapag 14, De Ocampo 11, Tenorio 9, Aguilar 8, Chan 5, Norwood 2, Douthit 2, Fonacier 2.
SOUTH KOREA 79— Kim M. 27, Yang 11, Kim J. 11, Lee S. 10, Lee J. 10, Cho 6, Kim S. 2, Kim T. 2, Yoon 0.
Quarters: 125-19, 36-39, 65-56, 86-79.