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Euphoria in Lebanon

It was sweet revenge for the Philippines as Gilas brought down defending champion China, 96-87, at the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon the other night. China beat the Philippines, 78-67, for the title in Changsha two years ago with a lot of home cooking that tainted the integrity of the victory.

Things have changed since Changsha. Chot Reyes is now back at the Gilas helm, taking over from Tab Baldwin, and the Philippine team is playing with that never-say-die spirit of “puso” once again. Only four players were retained from the Changsha lineup – Terrence Romeo, Gabe Norwood, Jayson Castro and Calvin Abueva. It’s virtually a brand new cast in Lebanon although JuneMar Fajardo, Gabe Norwood and Japeth Aguilar were on the squad that saw action at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.

Because the FIBA Asia Cup is no longer a qualifier for either the Olympics or World Championships, veterans drafted for Gilas were allowed to continue playing in the PBA even during the 15-day “release” period. The challenge to practice with a complete lineup was like an impossible dream for Reyes. Only once did Gilas play a tune-up game and it was against the SEA Games team. Gilas wasn’t complete as Reyes rested the players with PBA assignments the next day and barely won. When Abueva went missing because of personal problems, Reyes couldn’t believe how difficult it had become to gather everyone together for practice. In preparing for Lebanon, Reyes had the luxury of one single practice with a complete lineup.

The situation got worse when Fajardo came down with a calf injury. He’s in Lebanon but it’s not sure when he’ll be ready to play without pain. So it was no surprise that oddsmakers pegged China a 13-point favorite to whip Gilas in their meeting last Wednesday. Andray Blatche, the only Gilas double-figure scorer in China’s win in Changsha, opted out of the competition, presumably due to security concerns in Lebanon whose neighbor Syria is in turmoil. Without Blatche and Fajardo, China was tipped to walk all over Gilas.

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China reported for work with four Changsha remnants just like Gilas. They were 6-4 Guo Ailun, 23, 6-9 Zhou Peng, 27, 6-5 Li Gen, 28 and 7-2 Li Muhao, 25. Ailun and Peng are two-time Olympians with loads of international experience. Peng was captain of China’s team at the Rio Olympics. Missing from the Changsha roster were NBA veteran Yi Jianlian and 7-1 Zhou Qi, the Houston Rockets second round pick in last year’s draft. Qi is now in the Rockets camp while Jianlian has retired from international play. Another absentee was guard Liu Wei who has also retired.

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China was well-trained for Lebanon. The national team had training camps in Australia and New Zealand and two weeks ago, blasted Lithuania, 80-54 and New Zealand, 77-53, in a pocket tournament. Under the circumstances, there was little reason for cold-blooded bettors to wager on a win by Gilas.     

But the odds went out the window as Gilas stormed to a 7-0 start and opened a 17-point lead even with Abueva ejected in the first period. Li Gen, China’s bullyboy enforcer, punched Abueva on the back in a rebound play and as Abueva got up, he rushed the Alaska player only to be headbutted. The referees never saw Li Gen’s punch and threw out Abueva on a disqualifying foul. It was a lesson learned for Abueva. There are others like Li Gen who will try to get into his head in the coming games.

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Muhao never got to play as China went to 6-11 Hu Jingiu and 7-1 Han Dejun to fortify the frontline. Hu is called the next Jianlian while Han is supposed to be Asia’s Shaquille O’Neal. Hu, who averaged a double-double at the FIBA Asia Challenge in Tehran last year, had his moments of brilliance but the robotic Han was a dud. 

In the homestretch, China opened a three-point lead but Gilas countered with an 8-0 blast to ice it. Romeo, the Man with the Golden Arm, torched China for 14 of his 26 points in the fourth period. Christian Standhardinger, a hard worker with exceptionally good catching hands, fired 15 points. Castro compiled 13 points and seven assists while sharpshooter Matthew Wright tallied 12. The unsung heroes were Aguilar, Raymond Almazan and Norwood. Aguilar finished with five blocks and focused on his role as rim protector and help defender while sacrificing his offense. Almazan filled in for Fajardo and dropped down two dunks plus a triple. Norwood had the most minutes at 32:28 minutes and was Reyes’ primary wing defender.

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The Philippines hadn’t beaten China since the 2009 FIBA Asia Cup where Gilas did it twice, 79-74 and 78-76. The late Ron Jacobs once said the key to beating China is to keep the game close because the Chinese are used to blowing out opponents and in a tight contest under unfamiliar pressure, they collapse. It’s what happened last Wednesday. When main man Ailun fouled out with over four minutes to go, China panicked and Gilas held on for the win.

While there’s reason to celebrate Gilas’ revenge win, that was just one game. The Philippines faces roughhousing Iraq with import Kevin Galloway tonight then battles Qatar on Sunday. It’s still a long road to the throne with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Iran looming as major obstacles.

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