MVP happy with Gilas so far but wary of SEA neighbors rising

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines was unable to pull away in the first quarter against Thailand on Tuesday, May 16, managing only a 4-point lead after 10 minutes of play.

Under ordinary circumstances that would have been acceptable – a good thing even, if up against the likes of China or Iran. But in these parts of the basketball world, that signaled danger for Filipinos.

Tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan, longtime Gilas program patron and chair emeritus of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, saw that uncharacteristic quarter as an indicator of how the country's Southeast Asian neighbors are steadily catching up.

"I wasn't afraid of the team losing. Pero ang dapat na lesson doon eh nag-i-improve ang Thailand (But the lesson there should be that Thailand is improving)," Pangilinan said after the contest.

"One quarter, medyo dikit. Four points lang 'yun. Siyempre malabo na tayo [matalo] 'cause we're the better team. But, in succeeding teams, hindi mangyayari 'yun. (One quarter, it was close. It was only 4 points. Of course I thought we wouldn't lose because we're the better team. But, in succeeding teams, that won't happen.) They'll be tougher, they'll be bigger, they'll be better. We have to be ready for that as well."

The Filipinos, however, recovered from that sluggish first quarter versus Thailand and went on to blow them out 108-53.

The Philippines is currently enjoying massive superiority in the 2017 SEABA Championships with Gilas Pilipinas on pace to secure the lone qualifying spot for the FIBA Asia Cup.

They picked up their fifth straight victory on Wednesday, May 17, against Vietnam. Sweeping the tournament would earn Gilas the gold.

Gilas has now won its last 5 games by an average margin of 63.8 points. It's been a show of dominance that was expected from the onset, with a solid lineup boasting a healthy mix of veteran experience and rookie fervor, versatility, and size, plus naturalized center Andray Blatche.

Many labeled the lineup as "overkill," considering it's usually the cadet team that competes in SEABA competitions. But Pangilinan refused to risk it, knowing neighboring countries are making headway in the quest for an upset.

"Kasi 'pag natalo 'man tayo dito sa SEABA napakalaking pinsala. Kasi 'di tayo makakalaro sa FIBA Asia (If we lose here in SEABA it would cost us so much. We wouldn't be able to play in the FIBA Asia tournament), which will imperil our chances of qualifying for the Olympics," Pangilinan reasoned.

"The winner of SEABA will also be one of the 16 teams in the qualifying tournament for the World Cup in China in 2019. So much is at stake. So we should really send the best team we could get."

Gilas is currently on a collision course with fellow undefeated team Indonesia for the final game of the tournament on Thursday, May 18, which would determine the champion.

Indonesia took care of Myanmar, 123-50, for a 5-0 record, while the Philippines pushed back Vietnam, putting them at a tie in first place.

The game is expected to be competitive with the Indonesians getting back into the fold their two imports, Jamarr Johnson and Arki Wisnu, who have both been given clearance to play only since Wednesday.

In the same vein, the game should be a gauge of just how big the gap still is between the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia.

"It will be a good game. Doon mababanat 'yung team (That's when the team will be stretched)," Pangilinan offered. "Again, maybe the same lesson with Thailand. Certain countries in Asia are [rising]. We can't just pretend that we will continue our lead." –