Victory for Smart Gilas!

Marcus Douthit averaged 17.0 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for Smart Gilas in the Jones Cup. (Getty)

For months, Gilas 2.0, as the team was called, had some practice sessions, trying to find a groove as it prepared to compete in international competitions.  Getting everyone together consistently was quite difficult due to the PBA schedules, but the players were enthusiastic, willing to learn, and eager to don Philippine Team uniforms.  Since the original Smart Gilas team, led by Rajko Toroman, was disbanded after some success, with many of the players moving into the PBA, the fact that part two of the project would be composed of mostly PBA players confused many fans.  Skeptics abounded.  Coach Chot Reyes was handpicked to succeed Toroman and, as usual, the fiery coach was ready, although some questioned whether he could whip a roster not filled with the biggest names into a fighting unit in such a short time.

The first league in sight was the William Jones Cup 2012 in Taipei, Taiwan.  Filipinos are not unfamiliar with this tournament since the Philippines had won it three times in the past, in 1981, 1985, and 1998.  The 1985 victory spearheaded by Coach Ron Jacobs and the Northern Consolidated/San Miguel Beer team is especially memorable for basketball fans, since the victory came against an American squad composed of top collegiate players, some of whom went on to be drafted in the NBA.  Fourteen years ago, it was Tim Cone's chance to lead the Centennial Team into battle, and they came up with the championship as well.

It was a hectic three weeks since the 37th PBA season ended and the final roster for Gilas 2.0 was set.  Naturalized player Marcus Douthit (Providence College) would be the main man in the middle, backed up by Sonny Thoss (Alaska Aces), JR Reyes (Meralco Bolts), Ranidel de Ocampo (Talk 'N Text), and Enrico Villanueva (Ginebra San Miguel).  The smaller players expected to hit outside shots and bring up the ball were Larry Fonacier (Talk 'N Text), LA Tenorio (Alaska), Mac Baracael (Alaska), Jeff Chan (Rain or Shine), Gary David (Powerade, now Global Port), and Sol Mercado (Meralco).  Rounding out the roster were collegiate standout Garvo Lanete (San Beda College) and a new recruit, Matt Rosser.

Initially, not many Filipino basketball fans even knew that the Jones Cup was underway.  The local network coveror tried its best to air the games live, but could not do so for all matches, prioritizing its regularly scheduled shows.  The Philippines beat Jordan by ten points in its first game.  Led by Douthit inside, and the outside sniping of David, Chan and Fonacier, who all scored in double figures, Gilas 2.0 was in the win column.

A day later, the Philippines defeated Chinese-Taipei B by 31 big points.  Despite the fact that the opponent was merely a Team B, the drubbing the Philippines gave them was a confidence-builder and, at 2-0, started some buzz among the more casual basketball fans, and the interest in following the next few Gilas 2.0 games grew.  Lanete led the team in scoring for this victory.

The third game of Gilas 2.0 was against South Korea.  The mere mention of this opponent brings tearful memories to most of us, since time and again, South Korea has torn out the hearts of Filipino basketball fans with last second victories against our national squads.  It almost happened again this time, as the game went down the wire, but David's outside jumpers saved the day for Gilas 2.0, which eked out a 3-point victory.  Chan led the team in scoring.  Gabe Norwood, by this time, had established himself as a contributor on offense and a defensive anchor, a multi-purpose player who was rebounding, blocking shots, and bringing up the ball, aside from coming up with spectacular plays, which sparked the team's energy.

The winning continued for the Philippines when it came from behind yet again against Japan, to win by 4 points, 88-84.  Douthit had a monster game (26 points, 13 rebounds), Chan was again consistent, and Norwood was Mr Do-it-all for our guys.  LA Tenorio made his presence felt with 13 points.  At 4-0, fans were smitten and were eager to keep watching and rooting for this team that showed so much heart coming back from big deficits and exhibiting coolness and composure in the endgame.  This was a lost game, as the team was down by 13 points with a little over eight minutes left.  The rally and victory were almost miraculous.

Just as Gilas 2.0 looked unbeatable, Lebanon jolted them and all of us fans back to basketball reality.  Dominating the tempo and the inside from the onset, Lebanon dealt the Philippines its first loss, a 19-point rout.  Douthit was limited due to foul trouble and our outside shooting was not falling as it had in the first four games.  Norwood topscored for the PH.  Former Meralco import Jarrid Famous was one of the biggest thorns on our side, starring for Lebanon.  Being that the games were held practically on a daily basis, Gilas 2.0 had to forget about this game and bounce back quickly, as the next game was against undefeated Asian power, Iran.

Iran was intimidating, for sure, but at least NBA big man Hamed Haddadi was not on their roster.  However, they did have big players, outside shooters, and veterans who knew how to play under FIBA rules.  Gilas 2.0 kept it tight, never letting the lead of Iran get too big.  Norwood was again stellar, ending up with 17 points, including a crucial three-pointer in the last minute.  Douthit was his usual dominating self.  The Philippines went on to win the game by just a single field goal, 77-75.  It was a win by the skin of their teeth, but a win nonetheless.  Gilas 2.0 was now 5-1.  Iran downplayed the PH victory, claiming that the referees were in our favor.  They asked how a team that got routed by Lebanon, whom they had beaten handily, could suddenly beat them.  They forgot that in basketball, anything can happen.

Difficult as the road had already been, the Philippines' next opponent was Chinese-Taipei A, the stronger host team, one that has given us problems in the past.  Fortunately for the Philippines, the "little" guys were up for the task.  Tenorio, who had been pretty quiet since the Japan game, stepped up big-time in this one.  He hit crucial three-pointers (He's been doing that for a long time!), and Gary David was again the assassin in the endgame, hitting a clutch three to practically seal the win.  Tenorio, in typical fashion, sparkled when it mattered most, bucking the pressure and delivering for the Philippines.  Officiating was awful throughout the game, with so many mystery calls that the TV commentators could not even understand and explain to the audience.  The home team had every chance to snare this win, but the tough, fighting Filipinos pulled it out once again, setting up a match against the United States, where winning the game would mean securing the championship for the Philippines.

Yesterday was a day of anticipation.  The game against the United States was to be played at 5:00pm Manila time and all day, via social media and text messaging, prayers were being sought for the triumph of Gilas 2.0.  In a country starved for good news, what may seem like small triumphs actually resound throughout the islands and uplift the spirits of basketball-crazy Filipinos.  Underdogs for sure, but not lacking fighting heart and veteran savvy, Gilas 2.0 walked into the game with the hopes of an entire nation.  Simply put, if we won, we would be champion.  If we lost, even if our record would be tied with some other teams, we would not.  This was a must-win.

The Americans rushed out of the starting gates and took it to the Filipinos.  Outside shots were not falling for us, and the US lead was in double digits (11) at the half.  Coach Chot had much to talk about with his guys at halftime, for sure.  Whatever they discussed, the Philippines did not immediately exhibit in the second half, as the US squad continued to dictate the tempo, and upped the lead to 14 points.  Outside shots began falling for the Philippines, opening things up inside.  Chan, once again, showed his PBA Finals MVP form, ending up with 18 points for the game.  However, in this game the littlest man would turn in the biggest performance.  Somebody said LA Tenorio suddenly went into "video-game" mode.  Whatever he decided to do, he was getting done.  He hit threes, drove to the basket against much bigger opponents and shot over them, he dribbled the ball around the Americans, eluding their defense.  For seven games, the Philippines had played enough team-ball to win six times.  In each of those victories, somebody stepped up at crucial points of the game, showing individual brilliance as well.  The Lieutenant, as they call him, finished the battle.  The other players fed off his energy and his attack mode.  There would be no US intimidation.  It was the American squad that was left to figure out who this little fellow was, who was making a mockery of its defense.  When the Americans missed their attempt at the buzzer, victory was ours, 76-75.  Yes, Gilas 2.0 did it.  Coach Chot led them to the win.  Everyone on the team contributed.  Whether it was the clutch shots, the crucial loose-ball recoveries, the cheering from the bench from those who did not get to play much, everybody on the squad had a part in the win.  But this victory was ours.  It was a victory for our country, for the Filipinos.  What an accomplishment this was, for a squad that, as Coach Chot said, does not have a single PBA MVP winner.  Some players on it are not even the main men on their respective PBA teams.  Yet, as one, cohesive unit, they will be "bringing home the bacon", which is what we urge most of our national teams/athletes to do.  A very tough person I know admitted to me that he shed a few tears after the final buzzer, as he watched our team revel in the improbable victory.  Heart, guts, courage — all the clichés that show triumph in the face of adversity are applicable to this version of the national team, Gilas 2.0.

Coach Chot admitted afterwards that he knows the victory is a great accomplishment, but that it should in no way make one think that the Philippines is where it wants to be in terms of international basketball.  Much work still has to be done.  Keeping the team intact is one of the usual difficulties.  Hereunder are some of the things we observed from the Jones Cup performance of Gilas 2.0.

Gabe Norwood emerged as the "glue-guy", in the words of PBA analyst Jason Webb.  He provided energy, yes, but he also hit shots when needed.  He defended well and was a dominant rebounder, giving ample support to Douthit.  Personally, I feel Norwood was the most consistent performer, not scoring-wise, but in an everyday, bring-it-to the floor work ethic kind of way.

LA Tenorio was adjudged the MVP of the tournament.  Two games, the last two, won this award for him.  League officials were probably amazed at how clutch he was in the games versus Chinese-Taipei A and the US, despite being the smallest man on the floor.  He was nowhere near as great in the first six games, but stepped up when it mattered most.  This man has been clutch since his days at San Beda, then with Ateneo, and with Alaska in the PBA.  Now he has been clutch even in international competition.  He's delivered on all levels of hoops.  Amazing.

Jeff Chan and Gary David are "streaky hot", according to Webb.  But fortunately for us, they got hot at certain points of the game in almost every game.  Two victories came courtesy of David.  Chan was the most consistent scorer throughout the tournament.  He also fought for rebounds and dished out assists.

Larry Fonacier was a good choice to include on the team, as was Sol Mercado.  These two players play very differently from each other, but they were effective in their roles. Fonacier has learned not just to wait at the three point line, but to drive the ball into the lane and finish.  Mercado is a drive-first kind of player, but there were none of his kamikaze finishes at the ring, but rather, calculated kick-outs to shooters or drop-passes to big men, for easy baskets.

Ranidel de Ocampo can play against anybody and can adjust his game depending on who is guarding him.  He should be a national team mainstay for as long as possible.

Anyone Coach Chot put into the game knew what to do.  We heard him say "stick to the rules" a few times during huddles, and, whatever those rules are, it seems everyone on the team knew them and followed them.  The combination of players on the team proved to be a good mix.  Only future tournaments will show if they can keep it together.

Congratulations to Coach Chot and the entire Gilas 2.0 team, coaches, trainers, managers, and, most especially, the players.  You made us proud.  Mission accomplished for the Jones Cup.  Tuloy ang laban!  Mabuhay!

Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieC