Gilas wins Hong Kong tourney

Gilas Pilipinas huddle in the locker room after their win. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Dy)

HONG KONG - A working trip to Hong Kong started at Terminal 2 on Friday morning, 25 January 2013, where I saw most of the recently-crowned PBA Philippine Cup champions Talk ‘N Text Tropang Texters players and coaches, who were leaving for a Macau and Hong Kong trip, part of the reward for clinching the First Conference crown. I got to speak with Ranidel de Ocampo, Jimmy Alapag, Ali Peek, Jayson Castro, Assistant Team Manager Bong Ravena, and Head Coach Norman Black, congratulated them on their victory and listened to some of their stories, particularly those of Alapag and Peek, on how they were able to handle the Rain or Shine Elastopainters.

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When I told Coach Norman that I was heading to HK, he asked me if I planned to watch the games of the Gilas Pilipinas cadet team in the ongoing Eastcolight Super Kung Sheung Cup. I informed him that I hadn’t thought of doing so, and I wasn’t sure if I would have the time. I thought it would be great, though, if I could squeeze watching a game into my schedule.

On Sunday morning, 27 January 2013, one of my colleagues at work who was with me in Hong Kong saw his friend, TNT Assistant Coach Nash Racela, who mentioned that Gilas Pilipinas was playing in the championship game of the Kung Sheung Cup at 3:00pm today. I had no idea how Gilas had done in the previous games, but since they were fighting for the championship, and with free time on this rest day, I headed to Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Wanchai, where the game would be played.

It was a bit difficult to find the Stadium and I wasn’t sure if I was on the right track, when I crossed paths with an African-American in a jacket, basketball shorts, with a backpack and a big ID hanging from his neck that said “Player”. I asked him if he knew the place, he said he was heading there since he had a game “in about 30 minutes”, and told me to follow him there. He introduced himself as Ramal Goodrich, and said he played for the “Fukienese Team.” I told him I was a fan of the Philippine Team, and he said that’s who he was playing against. Despite knowing that I was going to cheer against him, he took me into the stadium, told the lady guard that I was with him as part of the Fukienese Team, and told me to go find a seat as he ran towards his locker room, way past his call time.

As I found my seat, I saw the Gilas players warming up. This version of Gilas is composed of recent college standouts like Kevin Alas of Letran, Garvo Lanete of San Beda, the Pascuals, Jake and Ronald of San Beda and San Sebastian, respectively, and Greg Slaughter of Ateneo, mixed with PBA standouts Niño Canaleta and Gary David, and reinforced as usual by naturalized player Marcus Douthit. In a recent tournament, the group had not done too well, being newly put together and still learning how to play with each other. I felt good, though, and expected Gilas to win going away.

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The venue isn’t too big, but it had quite a crowd, mostly rooting for the other team, which I learned was called SCFA, or the Southern California Fukienese Association Basketball Team USA. But, of course, as in most international venues, there were Filipinos scattered all around, some waving flags, others in shirts or jackets with the national colors, who were loud and proud, screaming and cheering for Gilas. SCFA was composed mainly of African-Americans, with only two or three Chinese players, and only one of them, Andrew Der, getting extensive playing time.

The game began, and immediately became a sloppy one. There were several miscues, so many turnovers, missed shots, and steal after steal, but Lanete was pouring it on, already in double figures at the end of the first quarter. Gilas led by just two at the end of one, 20-18. It was clear that Gilas had to mark Trayvonte Britt and Andrew Der of SCFA, who were good shooters. Their big man, Robert Curtis, was also effective, but clearly intimidated by Douthit, who easily had about three or four blocks already, and altered countless other shots.

In the second quarter, Gilas found it difficult to score. Gilas was still leading midway through, but SCFA began asserting itself, hitting free throws and forcing turnovers, to lead by five at the halftime buzzer, 45-40. Surely, Coach Chot Reyes and his players had a lot to talk about in the locker room. Lanete had 12 points and Douthit 8.

Gilas’ shooting woes and turnover problems continued in the second half. Terrible free throw shooting did not help at all. Gilas was not helping itself either with some porous defense, especially along the baseline, such that Douthit himself shouted at his wingmen to deny the baseline after one SCFA player drove in and drew a Douthit foul. Coach Chot’s voice could be heard shouting at his players to buckle down on D. The SCFA lead went up to seven.

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The referees were calling the game very inconsistently, and clearly making wrong calls from time to time and acting indecisively. Lanete had to leave the game after getting hit in the face/head (sorry, no big-screen replays at the venue), with no foul being called, and would not return. Douthit was clearly affected by the non-calls, and when Douthit was called for a highly questionable offensive foul late in the third, Coach Chot removed his jacket on the sideline and threw it on the floor in disgust. The pro-SCFA crowd booed him, and he egged them on, encouraging them to keep booing. Despite the terrible game Gilas had been playing, the team was only down by just one, 60-59. Douthit had 15 points to lead the team.

The first seven minutes of the fourth quarter were actually very painful to watch. Again and again, Gilas Pilipinas kept missing field goals and free throws, and allowed SCFA to lead by as much as nine points. The game seemed to be slipping away. Then all of a sudden, with the team down by six, David, who had been shooting poorly, hit back-to-back three pointers to tie the game. The Filipino fans suddenly erupted. SCFA, however, led by Britt and Curtis (who finished with 18 and 14 points, respectively), grabbed the lead again, and kept it for a few more minutes. But Gilas was within striking distance.

With about two minutes left in the game and down by just two, Gilas went to Alas, who dribbled at the top of the key, drove in, got fouled and hit the bucket! He hit the free throw and Gilas finally took the lead after trailing most of the way. SCFA battled back, but timely hits by Alas (a running one-hander), Douthit (a putback off a missed jumper), and David (a jumper from the right and free throws to seal it) gave Gilas the victory, 81-77. The Filipino fans were ecstatic! We were on our feet, cheering loudly, arms raised in victory. I could not believe how the tide turned in the last two or three minutes of the game, how Alas suddenly did what he does best, find ways to score, how David made key baskets late despite missing badly early on, and how SCFA suddenly went cold at the most crucial part of the game.

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I learned afterwards that Alas was named tournament MVP, which indicates that he had played splendidly even in their earlier assignments. He is undersized and is not a point guard by any means, but he handled the ball well late, particularly after Lanete went down, and scored clutch baskets, which will obviously only boost further his already-considerable confidence. Kudos to him.

Kevin Alas was named tournament MVP. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Dy)

To keep things real, the tournament is a very minor one. This Gilas team is not a solid team, to understate the matter. It does have vast potential, and the talent level is very, very high. All players on it are highly skilled. It’s the “learning to work together as a unit” part that needs much more work. These players are part of the so-called cadet pool and they will continue working to be ready in case they are needed in the major basketball tournaments. For today, however, they are champions. It was not pretty, but a win is a win.

After the game, as I was leaving the Stadium, I saw Coach Norman, together with Ravena, Assistant Sandy Arrespacochaga, and Tropang Texter John Ferriols coming down the escalator. Coach Norman agreed it wasn’t the best of wins, but it’s better than a loss. As Filipino fans pulled Coach Norman and Ravena to pose for some pictures, I headed out to get back to work. What a fine way to have spent this afternoon. Cheering for the national team is always fun, most especially when it wins the game. Congratulations to Coach Chot and the rest of this lineup for Gilas Pilipinas.

(The complete lineup for Gilas Pilipinas in this tournament: Alas, Canaleta, David, Douthit, RR Garcia, Matt Ganuelas, Lanete, Justin Melton, the Pascuals, and Slaughter.)

You can follow Charlie on Twitter @CharlieC.

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.