With more than two years off the hardwood, the Gilas Pilipinas Women proved they were still worthy of donning the Philippine jerseys as they returned to the grind.
In the recently concluded FIBA Women’s Asia Cup 2021, the national women’s basketball team showcased their elite talent, balling it out and leaving everything on the floor to defeat India, 74-70, last October 1 at Amman, Jordan.
Upon entering the tournament, the Philippines was ranked sixth in Division A and 51st in the world. Missing key players Eunique Chan, Kelly Casey Hayes, Danica Therese Jose, and former captain Jack Animam, the Samahan ng Basketball ng Pilipinas (SBP) filled in the void by adding young talents Ella Fajardo, Camille Clarin, Kristine Cayabyab, and Karl Ann Pingol to complete the roster.
Head in the game
With the long hiatus in tournaments, Gilas shooting guard Clarin shares that the biggest challenge the team faced was having the mentality that they were back in basketball after two years.
Animam’s absence—which questioned the squad’s capability in the paint—left them with the big challenge of developing team chemistry as a mix of veterans and rookies would dawn the floor. Foes like China, Japan, and Australia had the advantage of experience in the Olympics, apart from having a still solid roster. Meanwhile, the Gilas Women lacked these vital elements throughout the tournament.
As the underdogs, Clarin shares that the team devised a game plan to overcome the toughest of opponents: “[to] play with [their] heart, [to] leave it all on the floor, [to] use [their] strengths to [their] advantage.” Relying on speed and sharpshooting to make up for the lack in size, fearless performances from Gilas shooting guards Khate Castillo and Janine Pontejos and Gilas forward Afril Bernardino allowed the team to show their firepower. “[The] main goal is to stay in [Division A], that means every game is important—[from the] first, up to the last. We have to [quickly] move on from our losses, and focus on what is in front of us,” Castillo expresses.
Looking inward, backward
As shooting proved vital to the team’s performance, the veterans carried the team, with Bernardino being at the forefront of it all. “She was still able to pick us up every single time [and] give us that needed scoring,” Clarin stresses. But in the last game against India, more than heart and soul were bared on the court as the Castillo-Pontejos tandem came in the clutch, contributing 22 points each. For Castillo, “the trust and the support they gave each other was a really big factor.”
Moreover, with the towering presence of China and India and the absence of Animam, height is still needed to complement the speed and sharpshooting of the squad. For Clarin, recruitment of taller players should be a given, even if it meant looking for imports.
While their efforts are starting to bear fruit, Clarin asserts that a podium finish is needed for the female ballers to make waves across the continent. With China and Japan leading the power rankings in the said tourney, the Philippine team is trying their best to stay in the division. For this to happen, she shares, “I think we overall just needed a better grassroots program and more support going forward.”
The team currently has only four rookies in the lineup. The added experience for Cayabyab, Clarin, Fajardo, and Pingol will definitely improve the team’s competitive nature—something that these power houses already embody—and to give more opportunities to expose younger players will be key to better standings.
Defeating India for their last game in the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup 2021 was just the beginning. In order to grow from a crucial victory, Clarin expresses, “We need to continue supporting the Women’s National Basketball League or trying to find ways for players after college to get opportunities to either play overseas or here locally.” While the fans’ support will also help further a grassroots program due to demand, financial support will also be crucial.
Building the future
Winning it all in the Southeast Asian Games (SEA) in 2019 was the beginning of the team’s development, but the pandemic thwarted their growth. Castillo reminisces about their campaign and how the pandemic affected her squad, “After our SEA Games win, there [were] a lot of expectations, but [the pandemic] happened…We hope that we can continue moving forward even with little steps.”
As the team gears up for the upcoming 2022 SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam, expectations will rise, given the squad is the defending champion of the tournament.
Clarin shares that chemistry is one of the positive things that they can bring to the SEA Games, which can be used against more experienced teams, “Hopefully, we [are] able to keep that momentum.”