Dwight Ramos

‘We’re Going In There To Win’: Gilas Pilipinas Eager To Prove Worth In OQT

Gilas Pilipinas are looking to become the first Philippine basketball team to play in the Olympics since 1972.

While some members of the Philippine delegation to the 2024 Paris Olympics have already settled in at their training camp in Metz, France, the country’s men’s basketball team is just about to embark on their own quest to qualify and join their fellow national athletes in the quadrennial meet set to kick off on July 25.

The road will not be easy for Gilas Pilipinas, as they will have to contend with European contenders Latvia and Georgia in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT) in Riga beginning on July 2.

Should they advance to the next round, one team among Brazil, Cameroon and Montenegro awaits in the knockout semifinals, and should they hurdle that, they almost certainly will face a higher-ranked team in the final for the lone Olympic slot at stake.

It’s a daunting task, for sure. The Philippine last participated in an Olympic basketball tournament in 1972, decades before any of the current players were even born.

For Gilas coach Tim Cone, though, their mission starts with the correct attitude.

“We want to play against the best in the world,” Cone said moments after Gilas beat the visiting Taiwan Mustangs, 74-64, in a tune-up game at the Philsports Arena Monday night. “Of course, if you want to be in the Olympics and qualify, you got to play the best in the world. So I think it’s going to be a great experience for us.”

Gilas leaves Tuesday for a pair of tune-up games against Poland and Turkiye in the lead-up to the OQT. Prior to Monday’s game, the team underwent a three-day camp in Calamba. Despite the limited preparations, Cone wants his team to approach the coming days with the correct mindset.

“We’re definitely not going to take it lightly. We’re definitely going in there to win. No matter that they’re ranked higher than us, they put on their shoes just like we put on our shoes.

“We’re coming to represent the country in the right way and the best way we can.”

Missing Scottie

Even before training camp started, Gilas was already dealt a blow after injuries ruled out Jamie Malonzo and AJ Edu. Japeth Aguilar and Mason Amos were tapped to replace them, but just last week the injury bug hit again after lead point guard Scottie Thompson was also scratched due to a nagging back injury.

Gilas Pilipinas management scrambled for a replacement, even bringing in RR Pogoy, but ultimately it was too late as visa issues prevented the TNT sharpshooter from joining the team.

That leaves Cone with just 11 players, but he remains unfazed.

“I don’t feel we’re short-handed at all,” he said. “I’m not a guy who plays 11, 12 guys. Anyway, you know me. I don’t play that many guys. I’m really an 8 to 9 kind of rotation. The reason you have 12 guys is not necessarily for the game. You have extra bodies in practice in case somebody goes down. So I don’t feel short-handed at all.”

That being said, the loss of Thompson will be hard to quantify.

“However, I do really, really miss Scottie,” Cone admitted. “You all know how much I rely on Scottie. He’s such an infectious player. He infects the guys around him.

“He does all the things that don’t show up on a scorecard. So it’s not that we can’t find a replacement for him. It’s that we’re just missing him. Anybody we get is not going to replace Scottie. That’s just a fact of life. But we don’t feel short-handed.”

To compensate for Thompson’s loss at the “1” position, Cone said he will use Dwight Ramos more as a ballhandler, a move that might actually prove beneficial.

“We’re looking at Dwight to help us out in the backcourt. He played the wing for us when we had Scottie, but we moved him to the backcourt. He gives us great size. He’s still capable of scoring from that position.

Cone’s coaching philosophy – which is deeply embedded in the triangle offense – allows for less reliance on a traditional point guard.

“We don’t play a pure point guard system. If you look at the triangle over the years, we didn’t really use pure point guards. Even L.A. (Tenorio) is not a pure point guard in our system. Johnny Abarrientos wasn’t a pure point guard in our system where we ran a lot of single high or dribble drives.”

Gilas’ primary ballhandlers will now be Ramos, C.J. Perez and Chris Newsome, and Cone feels this troika can get the job done.

“I’m pleasantly surprised with C.J. (Perez). C.J.’s handling and seeing our offense really, really well. I don’t feel we’re losing anything. We’ve got another guy. I came to this approach that I would rather go with 12 and invite people to play rather than go with 16 and cut people. I didn’t want to cut people.

“These are stars. I didn’t want to cut people. The idea is if we needed somebody, we’d go get them. We came into this eyes wide open. We knew this might happen. If you remember the last (FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers)window, we only had 10 players.”

“We talked it out with 11 guys. They’re 11 strong and they feel okay. People are making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Taiwan takeaways

This 11-man lineup got its first taste of action against the Mustangs, who paraded three familiar faces in ex-PBA players Alex Cabagnot and Rashawn McCarthy and former Ateneo Blue Eagles center Geo Chiu.

Cabagnot, 41 years young, showed he was still capable of competing at a high level, finishing with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists.

“Alex is ageless,” Cone said. “He’s absolutely ageless. He can step into a team right now and still contribute if he wanted to at this point.”

Alex Cabagnot, now playing for the Taiwan Mustangs, held his own against Gilas Pilipinas. (Photo by Kieran Punay)

But the one player who stood out, quite literally, was 7’6” center Samuel Deguara, one of just a handful of players in the world capable of making Kai Sotto look short.

“I hope we don’t have a Deguara there (in the Riga OQT),” Cone said. “My gosh, he’s 7’6″. He’s reportedly the biggest professional player in the world. He’s one of a kind.”

Deguara had 10 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes of action, but shot just 3-of-10 from the field and 4-of-10 from the free throw line. Still, he was a handful for the Gilas bigs.

“It was a good test for June Mar (Fajardo) and Kai. They couldn’t get a lot of things going. He just takes up too much space.”

Samuel Deguara towered over everyone else, including June Mar Fajardo. (Photo by Kieran Punay)

Gilas actually got off to a hot start, going up 22-9 in the first quarter, but the Mustangs eventually made a game out of it. In the third, Gilas pulled away for good to seal the win.

There were some troublesome statistics, though. The team shot just 4-of-14 on free throws, with Sotto going a dismal 1-of-6. They were also outrebounded 52-39. The Mustangs also threw them different looks on defense that at times gave Gilas problems.

“We had a hard time. We only had three days to practice, so we haven’t really practiced zone. We haven’t practiced box and one. We were a little bit confused, but we came out in the second half, got a little figured out, and played better. Those are the areas in which we missed Scottie. ‘New’ did a great job of getting in the middle and causing problems for them.”

What lies ahead

Cone still has no idea about their opponents’ lineups in their tune-up games against Poland and Turkiye.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “It’s going to be very tough for us. But that’s why we’re here. I don’t know if the NBA guys are going to show up.

“Poland is preparing for the OQT in Valencia. But Turkiye is just preparing for the Euro qualifiers. So, they better have their full team here. It should be a good indication of where we are by the time we get to Riga. That’s the idea.”

Gilas Pilipinas’ gaze, Cone said, is fixed on Latvia and Georgia.

“So, we are not going in depth in terms of scouting or understanding what they 9Poland and Turkiye) do. We are locked into Latvia, we are locked into Georgia. We are going to show up, we will maybe look a little bit of video and play, just like we did today. We are not going to concern ourselves too much. Even today, yesterday and the day before, we were preparing for Latvia and Georgia.

“So, that’s totally on our mind. So, again, we are just trying to get our game right. We don’t care if we win or we lose. We are not going to go out and scout them or worry about them. We are just trying to get our own game right for Latvia and Georgia. That’s where the scouting comes in.”

Banner Image from Kieran Punay.

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