In epic slaying of China, Gilas Pilipinas shows it can and will fight back

Every once in a while, Gilas Pilipinas plays a magical game. Games that are like Halley's comet, which graces us with its majesty every 75 years – except the Philippine national men's basketball team has been doing it nearly every year for the last 6 years.

There was the 2012 Jones Cup gold medal game, of course the 2013 South Korea legend, every game in the historic 2014 FIBA World Cup, the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup bronze medal match, the huge Iran win in 2015's FIBA Asia, and then this: the epic slaying of China, the team that derailed the Philippines' Olympic basketball dreams.

Every once in a while, Gilas Pilipinas plays a magical game. On August 9, 2017 – 24 hours to the day since they took down South Korea 4 years ago (as first pointed out by Spin's Gerry Ramos) – they did it again.

A 96-87 win that meant so much more than a 1-0 in the group phase of the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup in Beirut, Lebanon.

It was the revenge game we've all been waiting for. Payback for the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship final loss that shot up our Olympics hopes.

For the series of bad lucks that 2015 team endured in Changsha, China (bus delays that left shorter warm-up time for Gilas, no tickets for members of the coaching staff, Gilas' rim being fixed while the Chinese casually warmed up on the other end – leaving Dondon Hontiveros to prompt the Filipinos to join their foes instead – and even assistant coach Norman Black supposedly getting pelted with random objects during the game). And for the World Cup hosting bid we lost, despite our sincerest intentions, to the more modernized facilities of China.

The win also became ammunition for trash talk amid the ongoing row between the two countries over the West Philippine Sea. It served as powerful, much-needed validation that Filipinos can fight back and win, even when pushed back against a wall.

On a mission

For the team, they knew exactly what they needed to do from the get-go. They came out swinging and looking like there was a debt that must be paid. A 7-0 lead for the Philippines promptly set the tone early, and it later became 13-4.

China, which was without key big men Yi Jianlian and Zhou Qi, was not ready for the force from the Philippines – a force that had been building up for two years.

Gilas Pilipinas, though they have only practiced as a full team once – on July 31 – before flying off to Lebanon, was united and humming well, particularly on the defensive end.

Gilas' speed – their bread and butter in international competitions – in passing the ball and running overwhelmed the much slower China. Their pick-and-rolls flourished and coach Chot Reyes' dribble drive offense thrived, questionable calls going against Gilas be damned.

But as if the odds of not having naturalized center Andray Blatche coupled with June Mar Fajardo sitting out due to injury weren't enough, the handicap became all too real when we lost Calvin Abueva.

Abueva, who made his mark wearing the Pilipinas jersey in Changsha two years ago, was tossed in the first quarter after headbutting Li Gen, China's bruising 6-foot-5 forward known for his physicality in the 2015 final. That Li Gen made contact with Abueva first with what Abueva appeared to contend was a closed fist, was not taken into consideration when "The Beast" was slapped with a disqualifying foul and prematurely sent to the showers. He played just 1.5 minutes and had two points on a pair of free throws.

Losing Abueva was a big blow. It meant a major loss in rebounding (Gilas had 30 compared to China's 39 and a massive 5-19 deficit in offensive boards). But his headbutt was forgivable.

As one friend put it plainly, "given history, talagang bibigyan niya 'yung mga 'yun (he will really retaliate)."

BEAST. Calvin Abueva and Li Gen going at it in the opening period. Photo from FIBA.com

BEAST. Calvin Abueva and Li Gen going at it in the opening period. Photo from FIBA.

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Asi Taulava, who also played for Tab Baldwin's Gilas 3.0 team in 2015, was particularly supportive of his little brother Abueva.

"I was pumped up seeing Calvin do that because the Chinese players are bullies," Taulava was quoted as saying by Sports5's Carlo Pamintuan.

"We needed someone to stand up to them and show them we won’t take any of it sitting down. What happened was after Calvin did that China also got physical. They were trying to wrestle us or trying to flop to sell a call. What they did not realize is that we’re used to that. They played our game and that’s when the lead started to grow."

Taulava is right. By playing into physicality, China walked right into the playground of PBA players who grew up with it for decades.

That Abueva stood up to Li Gen is forgivable because it sent a message given the layers of context involved. Abueva, for all his antics, has sacrificed much over the years for the national team. And he, like Marc Pingris before him, has become the epitome of what it means to push back when Filipinos are pushed down. Certainly no one on the team or coaching staff would fault Abueva for it, even if they lost.

Abueva was gone for the night but guys like RR Pogoy and Raymond Almazan stepped up in his wake. Almazan rocked and rolled his way to two highlight throwdowns and a perfect 3-of-3 field goal shooting for 9 points. Pogoy also had 9 points plus 6 rebounds and two steals.

Payback

Comebacking veteran Gabe Norwood also deserves a massive shoutout for the incredible, understated job he had done in this game. The 32-year-old swingman scored just 3 points but he also grabbed 3 rebounds, had two assists, blocked 3 shots, and registered 3 steals.

Most telling of all? Gilas outscored China by 11 in the 32.5 minutes he was on the floor, his defense lighting the way to victory for the Philippines. One of his blocks looked eerily similar to the crucial block he made against South Korea in 2013, after Jimmy Alapag's triple, to secure that win. In the final seconds, after Matthew Wright scored Gilas' last two points with a smooth layup, Norwood calmly rejected a 3-point attempt from China. It was 2013 Norwood all over again.

Of course, everyone is crediting Terrence Romeo for bailing Gilas out after blowing a 17-point lead and allowing China to gain the advantage late in the fourth quarter. And rightly so.

Romeo, for his part, also had a personal score to settle against China. He reportedly vowed to coach Reyes after the 2015 final that he would bounce back stronger next time. And boy did he follow through on that promise.

A game-high 26 points on 5-of-7 shooting from deep including 4 assists are part of Romeo's statline for the night. But he will be remembered best for his late-game heroics, with help from big brother Jayson Castro, who was a crucial and severely understated factor that allowed the circumstances to conspire for Romeo's big moments.

Asia's best point guard checked back into the raging storm at the 5:58 mark of the fourth quarter – right after Romeo bricked a 3-pointer and Almazan committed an unsportsmanlike foul, the Philippines holding on to a precarious one-point lead, 82-81.

China tasted the lead for the first time all night long in the ensuing play, but Castro's entry suddenly caused a shift in gravity on the court. The next play, he stretched China's defense as far as he could before driving fast down the middle to the hoop, bouncing in a scoop layup to recapture the advantage.

China reclaimed the lead anew shortly after via a 3-point play. But Castro managed to fish for pesky point guard Guo Ailun's 5th and final foul to force him out of the game for good. Guo Ailun had been causing the most trouble for Gilas up to that point, with his team-high 18 points, 5 assists, and leadership to anchor his team's offense.

With Castro attracting the defense toward him, Romeo had room to operate. And room was all he needed.

What followed was organized chaos for Romeo. A booming triple for the tie, 87-all, a cool and collected pull-up jumper for the lead, 89-87, and the dagger: a gutsy 3-pointer from way beyond the top of the key for the 5-point cushion, 92-87.

"No conscience! Terrence Romeo from way, way out!" analyst Quinito Henson bellowed on the broadcast.

FAN LOVE. Gabe Norwood (C) and the rest of Gilas Pilipinas get some love from Pinoys watching in Lebanon. Photo from FIBA.com

FAN LOVE. Gabe Norwood (C) and the rest of Gilas Pilipinas get some love from Pinoys watching in Lebanon. Photo from FIBA.

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Momentum continued when Romeo robbed China of a crucial possession with a steal. At the minute mark, Castro and Christian Standhardinger beautifully executed a pick and roll, with Castro drawing the double team and leaving the Fil-German free for the layup and the 7-point lead. Wright polished off the win with one last layup. China was held scoreless in the last 4 minutes of the game.

Such was Castro's impact that his 24 minutes on the court allowed the Philippines to outscore China by 14 points.

We have arrived at this point, where Jayson Castro's mere presence is enough to tilt the axis, to stabilize the national team, and guide them when they're lost.

Terrence Romeo, who was a minus-3 in 21.5 minutes, could get there someday, too. But for now, Castro is still the man for Gilas.

Every once in a while, Gilas Pilipinas plays a magical game. And when they do, it's always worth witnessing – whether you're there live, in front of the television, on the road somewhere watching through a tiny smartphone screen, or the next day via replay.

Obviously it's still only the first game (although this win admittedly doesn't quite feel like it). We all need to pull a Jayson Castro and calm down in the middle of all the excitement. We've still got Iraq and Qatar, who are surely bracing for us now after that Chinese upset, to take care of. And there's the tournament beyond this group phase, as we gun for what could be our first gold in this tournament since 1985.

For a moment there it felt like maybe the bigger country would impose its will over the smaller one once more. A reality check that size and power were insurmountable yet again. But the magic worked this time. Will, skill, and wit prevailed. Poetic justice was served. And the Philippines took down China.

It's not over yet. The job isn't done. But this game, this moment deserves to be remembered for what it is: the fightback we needed, symbolic of our own struggles against many forms of inequality or unfair circumstances every day. In one word for Filipinos: resbak. – Rappler.com