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Chooks in toughest test

Chooks To Go, representing the Philippines, will be severely tested by PetroChimi of Iran in a Group A game at the FIBA Asia Champions Cup in Chenzhou, China, tonight with the winner gaining pole position in the crossover knockout quarterfinals set on Thursday.

There are 10 teams split into two groups in the elimination stage. The top four finishers of each group advance to the quarterfinals where No. 1 will face No. 4 and No. 2 will take on No. 3. If Chooks makes it past PetroChimi, coach Chot Reyes’ squad will likely battle projected Group B No. 4 ONGC of India, whose star player is 7-4 Indian-Canadian Gursimran Bhullar, in the quarterfinals.

PetroChimi is bannered by six Iran national team regulars – 5-11 Sajjad Mashiyekhi, 6-3 Saeid Davarpanah, 6-3 Behnam Yakhchali, 6-7 Oshin Sahakian, 6-8 French-Iranian Navid Niktash and 6-6 Arsalan Kazemi who was the Washington Wizards second round pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Iran’s imports are former Los Angeles Clippers guard Willie Warren of the University of Oklahoma and 7-1 Mirza Begic, a naturalized Slovenian born in Bosnia who has played for Real Madrid in the Spanish league.

PetroChimi started the tournament on the wrong foot, losing a 66-65 decision to Astana of Kazakhstan, but looked frightening in demolishing Sarayyet Ramallah of Palestine, 108-45. Chooks beat Astana, 73-65 but lost to Palestine, 89-82. No team is unbeaten in Group A.

For Chooks, it’s not 7-1 import Zeke Austin who’s leading the team in scoring but Kiefer Ravena, ranked third overall in the tournament ladder with 23.3 points a game behind Thailand’s Michael Singletary (35) and China’s Darius Adams (26.7). Ravena is one of four Chooks players averaging in double figure points – the others are Austin (19), Carl Bryan Cruz (12.7) and Jeron Teng (12). The four are logging at least 20 minutes a game. Chooks guard L. A. Revilla is also averaging over 20 minutes an outing to go with his norms of 6.7 points, 2.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

The only stain in Chooks’ record was the loss to Palestine. Curiously, the game was played last Sept. 23 – the same day in 2015 when Palestine shocked Gilas, 75-73, at the FIBA Asia Cup in Changsha. Palestinian-American Jamal Abushamala, born in Minnesota, torched Gilas with 26 points in Changsha and tormented Chooks with 21 in Chenzhou. Chooks went 0-of-11 from beyond the arc in the first half of the game against Palestine and wound up hitting only 5-of-28 triples. Austin played hurt and could produce just 13 points and eight boards compared to 17 points, 18 rebounds and six blocked shots in the win over Astana. Without Austin in usual form as a rim protector, Chooks was in disarray. Palestine had more rebounds, 50-46, more assists, 16-10 and shot at a higher clip, 41 percent to 38 percent. Palestine got a combined 42 points, 17 rebounds and nine assists from imports 6-1 Anthony Weeden of Chicago State and 6-11 Todd O’Brien of St. Joseph’s. 

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Chooks rebounded from the setback to overpower Mono Vampire of Thailand, 115-102. This time, Chooks was on target from three-point distance, knocking down 14-of-28 with Cruz contributing eight. Chooks also had more rebounds, 40-36 and more assists, 22-20 as Austin was back on track with 27 points, 19 rebounds and four assists. Thailand isn’t as big as Palestine so Chooks had an easier time attacking the interior. And since Cruz waxed hot from the outside, Thailand couldn’t gamble on just packing the paint.

For a team that was hastily formed with hardly any practice time, Chooks has performed beyond expectations. The only PBA veterans in the lineup are Revilla, Cruz, Almond Vosotros, Norbert Torres, Jeric Teng and Alfrancis Tamsi with two in the list of unrestricted free agents. Congo center Rod Ebondo of CEU was supposed to reinforce Chooks but couldn’t get his Chinese visa. Another would-be import Bright Akhuetie of Nigeria backed out because under the UAAP’s residency rules, he’s not allowed to play for any team except for UP where he’s establishing eligibility. 

Kazakhstan import Justin Carter, who played at Kobe Paras’ first NCAA school Creighton, called Chooks “the sorriest team I ever played against.” Yet Astana lost by eight and Carter could only deliver 10 points on 3-of-21 field goals in 30:16 minutes. Carter was held to 1-of-11 from two-point distance. It could’ve been the sorriest performance of an import in the tournament.

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