MANILA, Philippines â€“ After three and a half decades, the country is back in the World Basketball Championship.
Gilas Pilipinas earned a ticket to the FIBA World Cup in Madrid, Spain after eking out a gut-wrenching, come from-behind 86-79 victory in the semifinals of the 2013 Manila FIBA Asia Menâ€™s Basketball Championship before an overflowing crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena Saturday night.
The Philippines is making its comeback in the world stage since an eight-place showing in the 1978 Manila World Basketball Championship.
It was all about heart as Marc Pingris, Ranidel de Ocampo and Japeth Aguilar all stepped up for the injured Marcus Douthit while the pair of Jimmy Alapag and Jayson Castro in the backcourt played their biggest games of the tournament.
Pingris kept Gilas within striking distance in the second quarter then Castro willed them to grab the lead in the third before De Ocampo and Alapag took turns in breaking the Korean jinx with dagger treys.
â€œThe truth is, up to now, we still donâ€™t know how we did it,â€ Reyes emerging from an emotional breakdown on the court after the buzzer and onto the dugout.
He had to compose himself for almost an hour before he went for the post-game presser.
â€œWe just kept fighting, the players just wonâ€™t give up,â€ Reyes added. â€œThey have to carry us out of the court.â€
And the Koreans failed to break the hearts of the Filipinos this time. Not in front of a loud and proud home crowd.
Pingris poured in 16 points, half of it in the second canto that cushioned the impact of the absence of Douthit, who limped out of the court with an aggravated calf injury. The 6-foot-4 defensive specialistâ€™s sudden offensive outburst kept Gilas within three at the half, 39-36, after trailing by as many as seven early on.
â€œWe said Marcus has been carrying us for so long and so now itâ€™s our turn to carry him,â€ Reyes trying to sum up his frontlinersâ€™ gallant effort.
It was Castroâ€™s turn in the third frame as he blurred Koreansâ€™ vision with three straight baskets that turned the game around, 42-39, to Gilasâ€™ favor.
The crowd went wild and so did Gilas, who threatened to pull away, 56-46, midway through the third canto.
Kim Mingoo, however, willed the Koreans back into the game with his four-point play at the 4:38 mark of the payoff period cutting the lead down to just one, 74-73. Then Lee Seung Jun had a breakaway slam and split at the line to give Korea a two-point edge heading into the final stretch.
And the memories of the bitter losses came back to the consciousness of the crowd that went silent.
But Alapag and De Ocampo, who were at the receiving end of the recent Korean heartbreaker in Wuhan two years ago, fittingly came with the biggest baskets as the crowd of 18, 631 roared in celebration.
Alapag fired two triples that sandwiched a De Ocampo five-point binge to finally lift the monkey off their backs, his last in the final 54 seconds went straight to the hearts of the Koreans giving Gilas a five-point buffer, 84-79.
Gabe Norwood killed any hopes of another miracle Korean comeback with a huge block on the other end while Pingris completed his heroics with a breakaway basket sending the whole arena in pandemonium and brought the whole team down to their knees as tears of joy rolled down.
Pingris came away with 16 points, 10 boards and a sprained foot while De Ocampo played through an MCL injury to finish with 11 and 6 rebounds. Aguilar added eight and four aside from giving up his body battling Lee and Kim Joo-sung in the second half. The short-handed and undersized Gilas outrebounded the taller Koreans, 38-27, to buck the absence of Douthit.
Castro and Alapag combined for 28 points negating Kimâ€™s game-high 27 markers.
â€œOur objective is to win a medal but our dream is to win it all. So we have achieved our objective, now the dream is at hand. So we're going to go all out again," Reyes said. "Again, they have to carry us out that court tomorrow (Sunday).