No looking beyond Lebanon
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 30, 2015 - 10:00am

CHANGSHA – It’s tempting to speculate on Gilas’ chances in the semifinals of the 28th FIBA Asia Championships here particularly as the road to the gold medal game won’t mean colliding with either defending champion Iran or host China. But nobody on the Philippine team is looking beyond Lebanon in the knockout quarterfinals today.

Only eight teams are left in contention for the gold. Surviving two rounds of eliminations are the Philippines, Iran, Japan and India in the first bracket and China, Qatar, Korea and Lebanon in the second. Struck out of the running in the first round were Malaysia, Kuwait, Singapore and Chinese-Taipei while Palestine, Hong Kong, Jordan and Kazakhstan were eliminated in the second round.

The quarterfinal pairings are the Philippines against Lebanon, Japan against Qatar, Iran against Korea and China against India. The winners of the Philippines-Lebanon and Qatar-Japan matches face off in a semifinal duel tomorrow. The winners of the Iran-Korea and China-India games will slug it out in the other semifinal tie, also tomorrow. From the semifinals, the two winners will clash for the gold medal on Saturday.

The four quarterfinal winners will get a chance to play in the 12-nation basketball tournament at the Rio Olympics next year. The gold medalist will earn an automatic ticket to Brazil while the three other semifinalists will be invited to participate in three Olympic qualifying tournaments in July.

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If Iran and China hurdle their assignments today, they’ll meet each other in an epic encounter in the semifinals. That’s because of their finish in the two rounds of eliminations. If China finished No. 2 instead of No. 1 in its second round bracket or Iran No. 1 instead of No. 2 in its group, they would’ve avoided facing off in the semifinals. But the Philippines got in the way, sending Iran down to No. 2 in the second round of eliminations. China could’ve avoided a possible semifinal battle against Iran by losing deliberately to Qatar last Tuesday. But tanking isn’t in China’s vocabulary and besides, FIBA would’ve come down hard on the host country if it happened. A China loss to Qatar would’ve brought Qatar to No. 1 in its bracket instead, setting up China against Japan with the winner facing the Philippines-Lebanon survivor in the semifinals instead of Iran. China, however, wouldn’t even give it a second thought to disappoint an adoring homecrowd with a tanking loss. So it was a clear case of “no, tank you.”

For the Philippines, the immediate challenge is to dispose of Lebanon. A win will advance Gilas to a semifinal showdown against the winner of the Qatar-Lebanon game, avoiding a clash with either Iran or China on the way to the final.

Iran took a severe blow from the Philippines in the second round of eliminations but it was a knockdown, not a knockout. If Iran beats Korea today, it will move on to play China who’s a sure winner over India in the quarterfinals. Korea is a mystery squad and hasn’t looked formidable since losing to China, 76-73, in the first round and to Qatar, 69-63, in the second. It also struggled in wiping out Kazakhstan, 79-63, last Tuesday even if the Kazakhs didn’t suit up naturalized player Jerry Johnson and Australian league veteran Anatoly Kolesnikov.

Korea is led by 5-11 captain Donggeun Yang who tops the team in scoring (15.2), rebounding (5.0) and assists (5.4). His dominance is an indication that things aren’t right with coach Kim Dong Kwang’s squad. Balance is a missing ingredient. Korea is vulnerable to a slow-down game and when its outside shooting isn’t on target, Kim has no plan B because the bigs can’t provide a solid inside threat. Korea was clobbered on the boards by Qatar and it looks like it’ll be the same story against Iran whose bigs are frighteningly imposing.

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So it will be a dogfight in the semifinals between China and Iran. The only unbeaten team left in the tournament is China and from the looks of things, Iran won’t be able to survive the semifinals. That means if the Philippines takes care of Lebanon today and Qatar tomorrow, assuming Japan loses in the quarterfinals, then Gilas will go up against China for the gold medal on Saturday.

Gilas coach Tab Baldwin has rotated his players efficiently throughout the tournament with seven mainstays averaging at least 15 minutes a game. Gabe Norwood, earning his minutes because of his defense usually against the opposing point guard, is logging a team-high 23.1, more than Andray Blatche’s 22.9, Jayson Castro’s 21.9, Ranidel de Ocampo’s 21.7 and Terrence Romeo’s 21.1. Norwood also leads Gilas in total assists with 10.

Gilas’ most-fouled player is Calvin Abueva who has taken 35 free throws so far to Blatche’s 34. Abueva is averaging 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 17.6 minutes. He ranks second only to Blatche in team rebounding. In offensive boards, Blatche is No. 1 with 16 and Abueva is right behind with 11.


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