It’s one win that meant little in terms of the standing at the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup, but so much for millions of Filipinos unhappy with the state of their national basketball program and aching for relief from a string of defeats.
Before an 11,000-plus crowd that packed the Smart-Araneta Coliseum last night (Sept. 2), Gilas Pilipinas crushed regional powerhouse China, 96-75, emerging victorious from their fifth and last game in the quadrennial tournament.
As Gilas’ first win against China since the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup, it was a tremendous breakthrough for a team that lost their first four 2023 World Cup games—against the Dominican Republic, Angola, Italy and South Sudan—in heartbreaking fashion. With it, the Philippines has evaded becoming the first host country in 41 years to go winless, after Colombia in 1982. (The Philippines also lost in all its eight matches when it hosted the quadrennial tournament in 1978.)
Gilas is now sure to finish between 21st and 24th—a slight improvement from finishing dead last (32nd) while accumulating the worst point differential in the entire tournament (-147 points) at the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Expectedly, Gilas banked on Filipino American and Utah Jazz superstar Jordan Clarkson, who caught fire in the third quarter, dropping 24 points—including five consecutive 3-pointers—that created a 22-point cushion for the Philippines, 73-51, entering the fourth and final quarter.
Clarkson finished the game with 34 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists—his best in five outings. He received solid support from his teammates including Rhenz Abando (14 points, 5 rebounds), Kai Sotto (12 points, 6 rebounds), Dwight Ramos, who was celebrating his 25th birthday (11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals), Ariel John Edu (5 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists), and Scottie Thompson (4 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists).
China was led by Chinese American and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson, using his Chinese name Li Kaier, who finished the game with 17 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists.
The game was pumped-up and dramatic, with audience reaction on full volume. Did the mere fact that they were playing against China make Gilas Pilipinas see red? Clarkson, for one, must have remembered that China denied him a win in his debut for Gilas in the 2018 Asian Games. And among the audience, perhaps many Filipinos were remembering China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
Despite Gilas’ 9 turnovers and many flubbed 3-pointers, they kept the game close and ended the first half trailing by just one, 40-39.
But with 4:48 minutes remaining in the third quarter and with Gilas slightly ahead, 51-48, Clarkson delivered two quick shots under the basket. What followed next was particularly deflating for China: Clarkson suddenly erupted with five straight 3-pointers in under three minutes.
In the third quarter alone, Gilas outscored China, 34-11.
Here’s the standing so far: Japan failed to make it to the Round of 16 but, with three wins out of five—the best record from Asia—clinched the lone outright Asian spot for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
Australia and South Sudan hold the best record in Oceania and Africa, respectively. Both also failed to reach the Round of 16, along with France, but with the latter still gaining a slot in the Paris Olympics for being a host nation in the quadrennial event.
The four other slots are for the two best finishers from Europe and the Americas, which will be known when the FIBA World Cup 2023 holds the championship round next week.
What about Gilas Pilipinas? With only four slots available in the FIBA World Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, they will now have to perform their best against 23 other teams, including superior teams Argentina and Croatia as well as others that did not qualify in this edition of the World Cup.
Adding to this complication is the fact that Gilas head coach Chot Reyes announced in a postgame press conference that he would be stepping down and had served notice to the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas even before the team’s match against China.
With this development, Gilas is currently without a head coach for the Asian Games, which will run on Sept. 23-Oct. 8 in China.