Olympic Dream Lives On: Gilas Pilipinas Advance to OQT Semis Despite Loss

The dream of seeing a Philippine basketball team play in the Olympics is still alive as Gilas book their ticket to the next round of the FIBA OQT.

Time for Gilas Pilipinas to make new travel plans.

Despite a 96-94 loss to Georgia on Thursday night (Manila time), Gilas still punched their ticket in the crossover semifinals of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Riga, Latvia and are now just two wins away from an improbable appearance at the Paris Olympics.

Indeed, no one expected them to be in this situation, including the team itself. Anticipating an early exit from the tournament, they were all booked to fly out of Latvia on Friday.

“Well, we have our tickets to leave tomorrow, (Friday),” Gilas coach Tim Cone said at the post-game press conference. “So, we already had our tickets out, the reservations to go. We’ve already bought all the tickets to leave tomorrow.

“So, I guess we’re going to have to move them back a little bit. That’s how surprised we are to be here and talking to you guys. Like we’ve been saying, it’s the first time I’ve felt good about losing.”

For several minutes in the first half, though, Gilas looked like they were headed home. Needing to win by at least 19 points, Georgia came out on fire, scoring the game’s first 16 points as Gilas looked precisely like a team that was tired after an emotional win over Latvia just 20 hours earlier.

“We talked about it coming into this game that we knew Georgia was going to come in with great energy, that they were at a level of desperation because they needed this game and they needed a big margin to advance,” Cone said. “But it was still like pulling teeth to get our guys ready. You could see it. Just a short turnaround from a 7 o’clock game to a 3 o’clock game, and then, you played your total heart out to beat a superior team, and then to come in and have to play against a team that really needed it.

“It was like a train coming at you, and there’s nowhere for you. Couldn’t go left, couldn’t go right. You just got to take the hit. And that’s basically what we did. We just took the hit early and then tried to recover from that hit. It’s like coming out of a boxing match.”

The lead ballooned to 20 early in the second quarter before Gilas finally settled down and began to slowly chip away at the lead. Cone pulled another surprise by throwing a zone defense at Georgia, and it worked. By the end of the third quarter, they had drawn level at 74 with a real chance of winning and claiming the top spot in Group A.

“I really just want to compliment our guys,” Cone said. “They went down 20 and it could have been an easy panic time. And they worked their way back into the game and right into the fourth quarter where I guess we were tied or something like that at the fourth quarter.

“But we were down 20 at various points of the game. And, you know, one little streak here or there, we could have gone down 30. And then we’re going home and we’re using those tickets that we have tomorrow.”

Justin Brownlee, who again led Gilas with 28 points, praised Cone for his decision-making.

“Give a lot of credit to Coach Tim,” he said. “He made some great adjustments for us in the game to get us back on and we got a good rhythm. But overall, just excited to be in the semis.

Bizarre ending

The game actually had a bizarre ending. Down three with 14 seconds left, Cone instructed his players to just dribble out the clock and not go into overtime anymore.

“We had an opportunity to shoot a three at the end to try to get us into overtime and play. But we just felt we didn’t want to give them an opportunity to try to extend the lead in overtime.”

Georgia realized the ploy too late, and by the time they fouled Chris Newsome to send him to the line, there were only 2.8 seconds left.

Newsome made the first but missed the second, and Georgia’s Goga Bitadze attempted to score in Gilas’ basket to tie the game. Unluckily for him, he missed an easy putback dunk, and the game was over.

“That was a bad coaching decision on my part,” Cone admitted. “I should have had Newsome hold the ball and just not even shoot that second free throw and get a violation. That would have been a smart move. But I just I blanked out. I didn’t think about it. And we were lucky we didn’t go into overtime.

Gilas’ opponent in the semifinals will be world no. 12 Brazil, which clinched top spot despite a 77-74 loss to Cameroon in Group B.

The greatest concern of Gilas is the status of Kai Sotto, who suffered a rib injury in the first half and played just 11 minutes. Cone said the 7’3” center went to a hospital to get an X-ray.

“We don’t have any news on that yet, whether he’ll be able to go forward.”

Whatever happens on Saturday in the semifinals or Sunday in the final, if Gilas gets that far, this campaign can already be considered a success.

But Cone is wary about not letting the moment overwhelm his players and wants them to keep their focus game by game.

“We’re very process-driven. We want to just stay what’s right in front of us. We don’t want to look at the end zone and the end game and think, ‘Wow, what happens if we can make it to Paris?’ Obviously, the country would go bonkers.

“But that’s a long ways away. we got this step done, and now we got another step to take. And I think that’s where the focus is, and that’s hopefully where the focus is of our guys.”

Banner Image from FIBA.  

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