Gilas five debuts vs Saudi Arabia
MANILA—There’s A bigger, more important goal ahead, but there won’t be any letup for the Smart Gilas Pilipinas team seeing action in the Fiba-Asia Champions Cup starting today.
Out to restore the country’s old glory in the prestigious tournament, the Nationals begin their quest against Saudi Arabia’s Al-Ittihad in the third game of a four-match opening bill at the PhilSports Arena in Pasig.
There will be an abundance of top-caliber players in the 10-team tournament, but the spotlight undoubtedly will shine on the Smart Gilas five, which hopes to claim the country’s first title since 1996.
Not since the Hapee Toothpaste five, mentored by Junel Baculi, in 1995 has a Philippine team gone all the way in the tournament. Smart Gilas finished fifth in its initial foray in the event two years ago, and seventh last year in Doha, Qatar.
The national team, whose core was formed in late 2008, is also trying to gauge the progress of its preparations for the Olympic qualifying tournament, the Fiba-Asia Championships, in Wuhan, China, in September.
“We want to show that Smart Gilas can be competitive against the best teams in Asia,” said coach Rajko Toroman. “Smart Gilas is in great shape, more mature and playing much better.”
Toroman’s statement will immediately be put to the test against a Saudi team which he predicted will end up third in their group that also includes powerhouse ASU of Jordan, KL Dragons of Malaysia and Duhok of Iraq.
Defending champion Mahram of Iran starts its bid for a third straight crown against Al-Jalaa of Syria at 4 p.m., after the first game pitting ASU and Duhuk.
Al-Ittihad absorbed a 63-99 beating at the hands of Smart Gilas in an exhibition game Wednesday night, but Toroman expects a far tougher stand from the Saudi Arabian squad, which is reinforced by Serbian center Vadislav Dragajlovic and American Darren Keely.
“We beat them easy (the last time out), but I dont think it will be easy this time,” said Toroman.
No stranger to international basketball wars, PBA veterans Asi Taulava and Dondon Hontiveros have been added to the PH squad co-skippered by Chris Tiu and Mark Barroca for the tournament.
The 6-foot-9 Taulava, who suited up for the team in the Asian Games last year, will join hands with naturalized player Marcus Douthit in the frontline.
Hontiveros adds more toughness and another three-point shooting threat, considered an important ingredient to success in international basketball.
Among the players to watch out for in the tournament are Jordanian national team stars Sam Daghles and Zaid Abbas, who will play for ASU, and the legendary Fadi El-Khatib, who will strut his wares for Al-Riyadi of Lebanon.
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