PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The men’s basketball gold medal — the most important hardware for the Filipinos — is back where it belongs.
Stacked against all kind of odds from a Cambodian team spiked with naturalized players to extreme heat, cramped dugout and slippery floor, Gilas Pilipinas still emerged victorious as it pulled off a convincing 80-69 victory to clinch the gold medal of the men’s basketball competition of the 32nd Southeast Asian Games here.
Naturalized player Justin Brownlee saved the best for last while the rest of the squad sizzled early to gain the momentum and set the stage for a strong finishing kick in front of a massive crowd at the Elephant Hall 2 of the Morodok Techo National Stadium on Tuesday.
The victory gave the Filipinos their 19th gold medal in men’s basketball event and 55th overall for Team Philippines in the biennial meet that formally reached its final stretch.
But more than that, it sent a strong message of redemption, proving that Gilas have what it takes to bounce back and rise from a devastating loss to the Cambodians in the preliminaries that sparked a lot of doubts, including from their biggest benefactor in Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas chairman emeritus Manny Pangilinan.
“I know a lot of people doubted this time the first time we lost, what I didn’t tell you was that after the loss, I told them that ‘this is the loss that we could afford.’ We needed that lost, actually,” Gilas head coach Reyes said.
‘We all know that in the Cambodia game, that was not the real Justin Brownlee.’
“So, we just kept our focus and here we are. The players did a hell of a job, they stuck together, we kept this team of five, six Americans to below 70 points. That was great defense. In the end it was our defense that gave us this win.”
Battling fatigue, exhaustion and dehydration following their 84-76 win over Indonesia in the semifinal, Brownlee delivered when it mattered the most, finishing with 23 points while Chris Newsome chipped in 16 markers to spearhead the scoring parade among local players.
Marcio Lassiter contributed 10 markers while Brandon Ganuelas-Rosser and Christian Standhardinger each produced nine for the Filipinos, who completely buried the “Horror in Hanoi” in which they lost the gold medal to Indonesia in the previous edition of the Games last year.
Reyes said it was a total team effort, especially on the defensive end, but seeing Brownlee brushing off distractions speaks volume of his character and willingness to represent the country in major international tournaments.
“We all know that in the Cambodia game, that was not the real Justin Brownlee,” Reyes said.
“But when we had the real Brownlee, then, you all saw the results, right? We just wanted to make sure that we knew we had the game to beat Cambodia, but we have to be able to play our game.” Turn to page D23
“We were worried that we didn’t have Calvin (Oftana) and we didn’t have Justin. But when we knew that we have everyone in, we have the team and the game to beat Cambodia.”
With the gold medal safely back in Filipinos’ hands, Reyes stressed that he doesn’t know what the future holds for the program, especially after the country hosts the FIBA Basketball World Cup in August.
He hinted at the possibility of retiring from the SEA Games, allowing young players and coaches to take over and reverting the program to its objective of serving as an avenue to develop the stars of the future.
“Win or lose, I told everyone that this is my last Southeast Asian Games. I promised that I will not coach in the SEA Games anymore,” Reyes said.
“At least I was able to go out with a gold medal. The SEA Games are really for our developmental team. There should be younger players who should be playing here.”
“Hopefully in the future, we can prepare early and put together to compete in the next one in Thailand.”
Reyes and his crew will take a breather before convening on 1 June to prepare for the bigger task at hand — the FIBA Basketball World Cup.