Facing their toughest test in years, the Gilas Cadets, bannered by the some of the country’s brightest amateur prospects, captured the gold medal in the recently concluded Southeast Asian (SEA) Games Basketball Tournament in Singapore after beating Indonesia, 72-64, in the finals of the biennial meet held from June 9-15, 2015.
With most national federations deciding to go all out for the gold, a young Philippine side was challenged by squads composed of professional players and veterans plying their craft in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL). This resulted into really close matches with Thailand and Indonesia, with Gilas winning only by single digits. In stark contrast, the smallest margin of victory they had in the SEABA tournament a month ago was 29 points against host Singapore.
Swift elimination rounds
Placed in Group A along with Indonesia, Malaysia, and first time participant Timor Leste, the Cadets breezed through the eliminations with resounding victories. They trumped the Indons in their first game, 81-52, behind Ateneo skipper Kiefer Ravena’s 16 points. In their next fixture, they blew out a hapless Malaysian side, 100-48, this time led by former La Salle sharpshooter Almond Vosotros, who had 21 in the game.
The Gilas boys’ final elimination game was against a newcomer, Timor Leste. It didn’t change their way of play as they dominated the match, 126-21, in what turned out to be their biggest winning margin in the tourney. Another Green Archer and sophomore forward Prince Rivero stole the show this time, outscoring the entire opposing team with 24 points to his name.
Surviving the acid test
After topping Group A with a clean record, the Philippine team would then face a veteran-laden Thailand side that placed second in Group B in the crossover semi-final. Using their experience and size, the Thais outplayed the Cadets during the first half. They scored on lay-ups off transitions and shot well from behind the three-point line, giving themselves a 43-33 lead at the end of the second quarter.
Several adjustments at the half allowed the cadets to rally from the 10-point deficit. Strong inside play from NU big man Troy Rosario and several threes from Vosotros enabled Gilas to grab the lead from their opponents. Late in the game, Ravena hit a contested three-pointer that sealed the team’s place in the final, 80-75. Rosario finished with 27 points and 12 boards while Vosotros added 18 points.
In the final, Indonesia attempted to impose their will against their younger rivals as the Thais did in the previous match. Grizzled from their last game, the Cadets were more composed this time and were able to keep the Indonesians at bay. Down by double digits for most of the game, Indonesia tried to rally at the end of the fourth by hitting several three pointers, though it was too late for a comeback as the Philippine team came away with an eight-point win. FEU star Mac Belo starred for Gilas in the gold-clinching game after coming away with 22 points.
Looking at the bigger picture
The gold medal in basketball is one of the few bright spots in the country’s otherwise meager showing in the SEA Games. Although the Philippine contingent matched their previous gold tally of 29, it was a far cry from the projected 50 first place finishes set by the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) prior to the games.
The team was composed of several of the Philippines’s brightest young stars, reinforced by veteran center Marcus Douthit and coached by Tab Baldwin. Players in this team included reigning UAAP and NCAA MVPs Ravena and Scottie Thompson of Ateneo and Perpetual Help, respectively. Also in the squad are Rosario and Glenn Khobuntin of NU, Kevin Ferrer of UST, Gio Jalalon of Arellano, Belo of FEU, and Baser Amer of San Beda.
DLSU had three representatives in the line-up, the most for any school, with Vosotros, Rivero, and Norbert Torres. Vosotros played a vital role in scoring and played the role of zone-buster by hitting three-pointers during crucial stretches. Torres struggled with his offense but made-up for it by grabbing rebounds and playing good interior defense whenever Douthit was on the bench. Rivero had one break out game against Timor Leste but was used sparingly throughout the tourney. Other Archers such as Jeron Teng and Arnold Van Opstal were part of the training pool but didn’t make the final list.
Noticeably absent from the Philippine side was two-time UAAP MVP Bobby Ray Parks, who decided to forgo his participation in the games to pursue his NBA dream. FEU big man Russel Escoto was also not with the delegation despite a good showing in the SEABA tournament. They were replaced by Amer and Rivero.
This incarnation of the Gilas Cadets will go their separate ways once they get back to Manila to play for their respective institutions and leagues. Baldwin however, believes that this may not be the last time we would see them playing together, as he hopes some of them will be donning a Philippine jersey once again, this time as members of the senior’s line-up.
With the gap in basketball between the Philippines and her ASEAN neighbors growing smaller, it would be unsurprising to see down-to-the-wire games more often. While Gilas is undoubtedly the king of basketball in this region, the national team will now have to continue developing to remain on top.