What was expected to be an easy assignment turned out to be a tough one for Gilas Pilipinas.
The Nationals endured a lethargic start but picked up their rhythm in the middle quarters in essaying a 78-66 victory over the highly-physical Saudi Arabia crew to gain a share of the lead in Group A and get their title bid in the 27th FIBA-Asia cage joust in motion at the MOA Arena.
Although ranked 24 rungs higher than their counterparts, the Filipino cagers still found the Saudis a tough nut to crack but came through with a pair of decisive runs in the second and third cantos to join Chinese Taipei, which earlier stunned the previous tourney’s runner-up Jordan 91-87, at the top of Group A.
Playmaker LA Tenorio, along with gunner Larry Fonacier, scattered a team-high 12 points plus six rebounds and as many assists while naturalized center Marcus Douthit finished with a double-double outing of 10 markers and 11 rebounds in 21 limited minutes for the Nationals, who will face the Jordanians on Friday at 8:30 in the evening.
Aymam Almuwallad led all scorers with 18 points, highlighted by a pair of triples that cut what once a 16-point deficit midway in the fourth canto to just nine before the Nationals showed steadier nerves in the stretch.
National team coach Chot Reyes, who was also celebrating his 50th birthday, was gracious enough to give an ample of credit to the equally tough Saudis.
“I think the Saudis showed with their game tonight they deserved to be in this tournament. It was a pretty difficult to us coming in blind and not knowing much how the Saudis played,” he admitted.
The 6-foot-2 Fonacier also had the same sentiment, saying: “It's never supposed to be easy. If anyone thought that we would breeze past Saudi Arabia tonight, they’re wrong. We played a quality team and we expect the same moving forward.”
With a sizable local crowd egging them on, the Nationals had some tight stretches in the opening minutes against the stubborn Saudis, even trailing 14-18 early in the second canto.
The PH team, however, started to get its game going with a big 21-10 exchange that saw them take a seven-point lead at the break and a 44-32 cushion off a Ranidel De Ocampo lay-up midway in the third.
The Nationals enjoyed their biggest margin at 66-50 off a Gary David fall-away jumper midway in the fourth but the Saudis nailed three straight triples to pull within seven going to the final 3:58 of play.
But the PH team wouldn’t be denied and closed out the game with a 12-7 run.
"It was an ugly win but we'll take it. We have to move on and learn from this," stressed the 6-foot-6 De Ocampo.
Philippines (78) - Tenorio 12, Fonacier 12, Douthit 10, De Ocampo 9, Pingris 8, Chan 6, Castro 6, Alapag 5, David 4, Norwood 2, Aguilar 2, Fajardo 2.
Saudi Arabia (66) - Almuwallad A. 18, Almarwani Mo. 12, Alhwsawi 11, Abo Jalas 9, Almarwani Ma. 8, Almuwallad M. 4, Kabe 2, Belal 2, Alsager 0, Abujabal 0, Almuhanna 0, Almukhtar 0.
Quarterscores: 14-16, 35-28, 57-46, 78-66