Team loses, Gilas program gains
It speaks a lot about the national program’s growth and maturity that Gilas Pilipinas understands fully the value of a near upset against a team ranked No. 5 in the world.
“A lot of people will look at this as some sort of moral victory,” said Philippines coach Tab Baldwin, who is also the guy appointed by the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas to pilot the national program, early Thursday morning (Manila time) in a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia. “But I’ve been in this game for such a long time and I just don’t believe in those.”
Moral victories don’t reflect in the standings after all.
After a scrappy, scrambling stand, Gilas Pilipinas lost to Serbia, 83-76, in the Fiba (International Basketball Federation) Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) at Aleksandar Nikolic Hall. The team rallied from 16 points down, led by a point with under four minutes remaining and were two open threes away from shocking the world.
For all that, though, the team stood at 0-1 (win-loss), no half-win for effort, with a key game against Dominican Republic at press time deciding if the team goes farther down the OQT road.
“We had chances late. We missed good open looks. And they were really good looks, and they would have put Serbia under even more pressure than they were under late in the game,” Baldwin said.
Trailing by a point, 77-76, Justine Baltazar and SJ Belangel missed great looks from beyond the arc that paced the way for Boban Marjanovic to gobble up the low blocks and help Serbia pull away for the victory.
But while the gallant stand did nothing to enhance the country’s chance to make it to Tokyo for the Summer Games, it did provide the national program with several layers of knowledge as it continues building toward the 2023 Fiba World Cup. It exposed Gilas Pilipinas’ front line of the future, for example, to the kind of competition that Baldwin described as “elite” in terms of “intelligence” and skill.
“The outcome … is what it is. But this is a great learning experience,” said Ange Kouame, the 6-foot-10 center who, along with 7-foot-3 teenager Kai Sotto, was bounced around the post by the hulking 7-foot-3 Marjanovic, a backup center for the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA.
Kouame’s taste of the “very tough” matchup showed him exactly where he needs to be if he is to anchor this national team in 2023. He held his own, finishing with 17 points, seven rebounds and three blocks to lead Gilas Pilipinas.
“I’m trying to picture [how that matchup went] so I’ll get better against other players like [Marjanovic],” he added.
The team also figured out that “scrambling” may not exactly be a good attribute especially for an offense that stagnated in the game.
“Our cohesion isn’t near where we want it to be. We were scrambling a lot and I don’t think you want to criticize your team for scrambling but you also don’t want that to be the character of your team offensively,” Baldwin said. “You have to have more cohesion in offense.”
With Marjanovic absorbing defensive attention down low, Serbia’s shooters got open looks and helped the hosts to an early 11-2 lead. The Philippines came to within a point twice before the offense atrophied again and Serbia took a 22-16 lead behind veteran Milos Teodosic.
It was the same story in the stretch. After trailing by 16, the Philippines fought back to within five, 65-60, on a triple from Jordan Heading. Serbia was still leading, 71-67, when a frantic defense and a slightly more dynamic offense allowed the Filipinos to forge ahead, 74-73.
But Marjanovic, who scored Serbia’s last four field goals, had four points pinching a Baltazar basket that put Serbia on top, 77-76.
It was at that point where Gilas Pilipinas did show what its offense was capable of, springing Baltazar and Belangel for open threes. Ironically, both attempts missed and Marjanovic presided on another late mini-tear to put the game away.
But for the bigger plans ahead, Baldwin may have gotten what he wanted.
“[S]ometimes, particularly with a young team and a developing team, the occasion, it can be a bit bigger than we are, but that’s what the learning process is all about, so I was very proud of the effort,” he said.
And the guys on the team understand what the mission truly is.
“We [are] really proud of ourselves but we know that this is not the main point right now. We have to focus on the future,” Kouame said.
He may have been speaking about the game against the Dominican Republic, but his eye was certainly on the road ahead.“I [will] keep improving every aspect in my game. I think two years from now, I’ll be on top [of my game],” he said.
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