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A SPECIAL VICTORY — Asiad triumph helps Cone slay ghost of ’98

GILAS Pilipinas celebrates after beating Jordan, 70-60, in the gold medal match of the men’s basketball event of the 19th Asian Games. | WILLIAM WEST/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HANGZHOU, China — Before facing Jordan in the gold medal match of the men’s basketball event of the 19th Asian Games, Gilas coach Tim Cone received text messages from some of his players in the Centennial Team.

He didn’t elaborate on the content, but the mere gesture brought back painful memories caused by his failure to win the crown in the Bangkok edition of the Asian Games in 1998.

“I got a couple of text messages from some of the guys who were with me in the ’98 team. Kenneth (Duremdes) texted me, Johnny (Abarrientos) texted, wishing me luck. It brought back a lot of memories,” Cone said shortly after leading Gilas Pilipinas to a dramatic 70-60 victory in the title match on Friday at the Hangzhou Olympic Centre Gymnasium here.

“I was so devastated in ’98 that we didn’t win. I was a young coach then. I was putting a lot of pressure on my shoulders and didn’t know how to handle it well.”

“Being able to come to this time 25 years later, it’s been up and down. I went through the wringer a few times so I felt that I can handle it better this time.”

True enough, the 65-year-old American coach showed up older and wiser in his return flight to this prestigious continental event.

Despite getting a last-minute appointment, Cone still displayed tremendous grace under pressure, opting to focus on the task at hand instead of getting distracted by the things he can’t control.

The biggest distraction was when four of his players — Calvin Abueva, Jason Perkins, Terrence Romeo and Mo Tautuaa — were not allowed to suit up for not being part of the initial roster submitted by the Philippine Olympic Committee to the organizers.

With time running out, Cone and Gilas team manager Alfrancis Chua tapped four new players in Kevin Alas, Chris Ross, CJ Perez and Arvin Tolentino to come in while Marcio Lassiter also joined to replace the injured Roger Pogoy.

The substitution wasn’t smooth as Alas, Ross, Perez and Tolentino didn’t receive their accreditation cards on time, prompting them to nearly miss their Philippine Airlines flight bound to Shanghai.

Gilas opened their campaign with an 89-61 win over Bahrain before posting an 87-72 victory over Thailand. But against Jordan, a team bannered by former Philippine Basketball Association import Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the Filipinos sputtered, prompting them to absorb a 62-87 setback that put them on a collision course with powerhouse China.

“After that Jordan game, I was throwing things and screaming at everybody in the locker room. I told them that we’re playing for the country. We can’t play like that,” Cone said.

“But they turned it around and they came around like what they have done.”

Cone added that the victory over China was a true test to their character.

With Gilas down by five with less than two minutes left, naturalized player Justin Brownlee fired back-to-back three-pointers to grab the lead. Then, the Filipinos forced Wang Zhelin to put up an ugly shot with time running out to escape with a thrilling 77-76 victory and advance to the gold medal match for the first time since 1990.

After posting that “miraculous” win over China, Gilas Pilipinas was unstoppable.

The Filipinos faced the Jordanians with fire in their eyes with Chris Newsome stepping up defensively to put Hollis-Jefferson out of his comfort zone. Brownlee was also at his best as he drew support from Ange Kouame, Scottie Thompson and Calvin Oftana at the attack zone.

“It was also nice that we didn’t totally rely on Justin tonight. A lot of guys contributed. The other two games, we really relied on Justin to carry us through,” Cone said.

“Hollis-Jefferson did a great job of keeping Justin in check — for the most part, not all the time. But it forced the other guys to play well. Guys like Newsome, and Ange and Scottie, of course, Scottie was all over the place. Guys stepped up and played. I just feel really good for everybody.”

Cone said seeing the Filipinos celebrate for the Asian Games title for the first time in more than six decades was truly a heartwarming experience. In fact, his wife, Cristina, was in tears after getting the news that they finally did it.

“It’s still emotional. It’s emotional to come out here and do this on such a big stage,” he said.

“I’ve been able to coach in some grand slams and in big championships, Justin’s shot and all that stuff. But this is something different. This is really special.”

Cone said with the victory, he wouldn’t be surprised if Filipinos start their domination in the men’s basketball event of the Asian Games.

After all, the ghost of ’98 had already been slayed.

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