Proper perspective

The Philippines celebrates after beating South Korea. —PHOTO COURTESY OF FIBA

Gilas Pilipinas racked up a 6-0 record in its corner of the Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers (ACQ). The team also swept rival and oft-tormentor South Korea, including Sunday’s 82-77 victory over the Asian giants. Surely, there is enough in there to generate unabashed euphoria all around.

National coach Tab Baldwin, however, hosed down the celebration with a splash of reality.

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“I think we cannot get ahead of ourselves. This is a good start, but we have to stay focused,” he said shortly after the victory at Angeles University Foundation.

“We have to keep focused on what we don’t do well, and there’s a lot of that still,” he added.

The ACQ’s third window allowed the Philippines to book a spot in the Asian championships, but having done that in the first of three games, Gilas Pilipinas went to work in building its path toward the 2023 World Cup.

Still, it was a satisfying three games by many accounts. Gilas Pilipinas swept South Korea, a country that has caused some of the most gut-wrenching defeats on Philippine teams in the past. The Filipinos won the opener, 81-78, on a three-pointer at the buzzer by SJ Belangel—a basket described as a “lucky shot” by Korean coach Cho Sang-hyun.

That quote, which Baldwin highlighted to manufacture some sort of motivation for the no-bearing rematch, lit a fire under the Philippine squad.

“It was a little personal,” said Dwight Ramos, the Philippines’ most consistent performer in these qualifiers who led the team with 19 points (five-of-nine from deep), five assists, two steals and a lot of hustle. “We wanted to show that we can hang with the big dogs like Korea.”

The rest of the team made a good account of themselves that afternoon, shooting triples with better efficiency and defending with much more intensity.

Heroes abounded, too. Ramos, Belangel and Will Navarro came up with big plays—not all of which would register in the stat sheet.

Up by just two and with Korea forcing a near turnover, Navarro hustled to save the basketball and found Justine Baltazar for a wide-open dunk for a 79-75 lead, 33 seconds remaining. Korea chipped the lead to two, but Belangel came to the rescue—if the Philippines is under some sort of “Korean curse,” the Koreans now have to deal with some Belangel hex of their own. The gutsy guard somehow fished an unsportsmanlike foul on Lee Dae-sung, giving the Philippines free throws and possession.

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Belangel split his charities and Korea put Ramos on the stripe. Ramos also split for 81-77, but he plucked the offensive rebound off his miss to put the game to bed.

But with bigger goals in mind, Baldwin will comb through the things that went wrong—however subtly—during the remarkable third window, which included a 76-51 rout of Indonesia.

“Until we can fix the problems that maybe weren’t exposed in these games here, that will be exposed later on, then we can’t really expect to be successful in 2023, so there’s a tremendous amount of work to do,” said Baldwin, also the national cage program’s project director.

“I don’t think that our results here will help us much when we get [to Serbia],” he added.

The Philippines is flying to Serbia on a wild-card ticket to the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade, which features the last four pathways to the Olympic Games in Japan next month.

“In Serbia, we’re going to be playing the Serbian national team trying to make it to the Olympics. It’s at [their] home [turf],” Baldwin said. “I expect there are going to be great lessons for our players. But you know, I know that our players are [also] going to go there and fight. That’s what we have to do.” INQ

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