Wednesday, August 9, 2017

FIBA Asia Cup: More than #puso, nerves of steel keyed Gilas upset of China

MANILA -- Five good-vibes takeaways from the Philippines' 96-87 win over China in the FIBA Asia Cup on Wedneday.

Quick start

Coach Chot Reyes wants his teams to jump out of the gates and, given that his roster in Lebanon is already thin up front and his squad has little margin for error against the defending champions, that philosophy became more imperative against China.

Proper execution initiated by Jayson Castro, the willingness by Gilas' big men to go toe to toe with China's behemoths, and long-distance shooting led to a 7-0 start and a 26-16 advantage at one point in the first quarter.

The Filipinos would lose the lead, true, but by the time they did, the confidence Reyes and his crew had mustered while being up by double digits allowed them to keep their composure and execute well down the stretch.

Big men stood their ground

Japeth Aguilar, Raymond Almazan and Christian Standhardinger outworked and, more importantly, outsmarted China's vaunted front line. Their ability to cut to the basket and receive a pass, then take advantage of the Chinese big men's slow reaction time flummoxed the reigning title holders in the first half. It helped, too, that Aguilar and Almazan can knock down 3s.

Battling opponents bigger than he is is nothing new to Standhardinger, having had experience playing in Europe and the US.

While that fourth-quarter run will be best remembered for Terrence Romeo's heroics, it was Aguilar's constantly looming threat as a shot-blocker that prevented China from doing more damage.

Playing as a third-string center, Almazan provided quality minutes when Aguilar and Standhardinger sat out because of foul trouble. Legitimately gone are the initial jitters that seemed to have held him back in his early days as a fresh Gilas call-up this year. On Wednesday, Almazan let the game come to him on offense, hustled on defense and along the way posterized three Chinese giants.

Gabe Norwood, Swiss Army knife

The Rain Or Shine forward was a disruptive force who repeatedly got in between passing lanes en route to a game-high 3 steals to go with 3 blocks. Whether as a help defender or in a one-on-one situation, Norwood can excel in both roles because of his height. While everyone else on the roster is undersized compared with his Chinese counterpart, the 6-foot-6 Norwood matches up well with China.

Norwood's first stint with the national team, under Reyes coincidentally, came exactly 10 years ago this month in the FIBA Asia championship in Japan. From a rookie looking for his place on a star-laden team to a leader who works by example and embraces his role as mentor, Norwood has come a long way.

More than #puso, nerves of steel

It's easy to mix up which body part best depicts Gilas' character but, while #puso is the team's trademark battlecry, it was steel nerves that essentially keyed the Philippines' upset of China.

There were several instances in which China clawed its way back from double-digit deficits, but Reyes and co. found a way to keep the Chinese at bay.

When China came within 28-21 after being down by 10, the Philippines launched a 10-0 run to go up 38-21 in the second quarter. In the third, China threatened again, narrowing the gap to 59-50, before the Philippines countered with a 6-0 attack to take a 15-point lead and force China to call timeout.

Of course, Gilas' ultimate display of toughness came when the Filipinos were down 87-84. Led by Terrence Romeo, the Philippines finished off China with a 12-0 run to complete the mind-boggling victory.

It takes heart to come from behind, sure, but it requires intestinal fortitude to stave off repeated comeback tries by juggernaut China and beat the reigning champs in a closely fought game.

Terrence Romeo

This game was supposed to be how China was going to maul the smaller Filipinos, but Goliath didn't stand a chance against David and one particular 5-foot-10 Tasmanian devil of a guard.

It took a lot of faith by Reyes, a forever advocate of basketball egalitarianism, to put the ball in one man's hands down the stretch, especially since Romeo made some head-scratching decisions a few sequences prior.

But Romeo didn't disappoint going full "Mamba mentality," becoming the ultimate epitome of "wow" in arguably the most glorious 1-minute, 34-second stretch in Philippine basketball history.

The degree of difficulty of his shots, the magnitude of the stage, the urgency of the moment, and the long-standing and bitter nature of the Philippines' rivalry with China all combined to make sure that Romeo's heroics on Wednesday won't be forgotten in a long while.