Mission accomplished for Gilas Pilipinas
By Abac Cordero Updated Monday August 12, 2013 - 12:00am

Gilas Pilipinas players celebrate following their 86-79 win against South Korea in FIBA Asia Basketball Championship semifinals at the Mall of Asia Arena the other night. JOEY MENDOZA

MANILA, Philippines - For the Philippines, the real battle was won even before the final game of the 27th FIBA-Asia Championship at the Mall of Asia Arena.

It was Saturday night's 86-79 win over South Korea that mattered most.

As time ticked away, Gilas players whooped it up and coach Chot Reyes was already in tears. The crowd of close to 18,000 was in a frenzy.

It was the first victory by the Philippines over Korea in a long, long while and after so many heartbreaking
defeats dating back from the 2002 Busan Asian Games.

The victory also gave the Philippines a ticket to the 2014 World Championship in Spain, regardless of the result of last night's title match between the hosts and Iran.

Mission impossible became mission accomplished.

Now, the Filipinos have all the time to prepare for the World Championships. It's the mother of all basketball tournaments.

The last time the Philippines saw action in the World Championships was in 1978 when the Filipinos hosted the event five years after ruling the FIBA-Asia event then known as the ABC.

The victory over Korea was the sweetest.

Manny V. Pangilinan, the president of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas, couldn't describe the feeling other than by saying he was very happy with the result.

"Masayang masaya. Para sa bayan ito (This is for the country)," said the man behind the country's first hosting of the FIBA-Asia event since 1973.

Word got out of the Gilas dugout that MVP has promised a bonus of P1 million for each of the players.

Reyes went to the Korean side to congratulate them after the buzzer but the latter had left for their dugout. The Filipino coach turned around and he broke down.

The coach loved by many and criticized by some almost dropped to his knees, overcome with emotion. He covered his face with his hands.

The team manager of Gilas, Butch Antonio, came up to Reyes, and the coach buried his face on Antonio's chest. Together they wept.

Again, it was a victory some people thought would never come.

Right after the opening tip, which the Koreans won, the Filipino crowd got into the game and started chanting, "De-fense! De-fense!"

They did it the entire game, each time Korea had the ball.

It proved to the greatest defense.

"The (crowd) pressure really affected us. In the last quarter we couldn't focus," the Korean coach said during the postgame interview.

The game was tight all the way. The biggest lead for the Philippines was 10, and for the Koreans nine. There were 12 lead changes and three deadlocks.

Reyes entered the press room and was greeted with applause. He sat quietly as the Koreans briefly talked about the game and then left.

Ranidel de Ocampo and Marc Pingris, who played key roles in the victory, joined their coach on the table.

De Ocampo started tto cry. And again, his coach cried.

"We cried when we lost in 2007 (FIBA-Asia in China) and now we're still crying," said Reyes.

"But there's no greater opportunity than to write your own history," he added.

De Ocampo recalled all the hardships the team went through preparing for this tournament.

Pingris sat beside him, head bowed. When it was his time to speak, he also broke down,

"It's all about heart. Puso talaga," said Pingris.

There was no doubt about it.

Reyes said his pregame speech inside the dressing room was short and simple.

"I told them that we all know about our own personal stories. And that now is the chance to write the story of this team, to write the Gilas story," he said.

"There's no greater opportunity in life than to write your own story. This team just wrote it tonight," Reyes added.

What made the victory over the Koreans sweeter was the fact that it came with Marcus Douthit, the starting center for Gilas, on the bench with an injury.

Douthit missed the entire second half and many thought his absence already meant defeat in the hands of the tall and sweet-shooting Korean side.

But the Gilas players, including Jason Castro, Jimmy Alapag, LA Tenorio, Japeth Aguilar, Larry Fonacier, Gary David, Gabe Norwood, Jeff Chan and June Mar Fajardo rose to the occasion.

"Marcus has carried us for so long. It's time that we carried him. I still don't know how we did it," said Reyes.

Alapag, who sealed the victory over the Koreans with a triple in the final 54 seconds, said it was like no other.

"It's the most precious moment in my career. This is more than a PBA championship. This is so much deeper. This is four our country," he said.

In between sobs, De Ocampo thanked his coaches and his teammates for the victory. Then he thanked MVP for all the support.

"Sana humaba pa ang buhay niya (I hope he lives longer)," he said.

Then laughter filled the room.

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Saturday, August 10, 2013 @ MOA Arena
5:45 PM - Semifinal Round
Iran vs Chinese Taipei
8:00 PM - Semifinal Round
Philippines vs Korea