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Rajko not surprised Gilas won

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - June 18, 2021 - 12:00am

Gilas makes its second appearance in the FIBA Asia Cup third qualifying window in Clark tonight and Indonesia looms as a formidable opponent. Coach Tab Baldwin’s Young Guns are on a high after shocking South Korea, 81-78, last Wednesday but they’ve got to stay grounded to beat Indonesia whose Serbian tactician Rajko Toroman knows Philippine-style basketball like the back of his hand. Toroman was once Gilas head coach and Indonesia’s naturalized player Lester Prosper is a former PBA import with tons of experience in Sweden, Slovakia, Canada, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Spain, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama and the UK. If experience is Indonesia’s trump card, youth is on Gilas’ side.

Baldwin is tweaking his 12-man lineup for Indonesia, bringing in LeBron Lopez, Geo Chiu and Jordan Heading while sidelining Mike Nieto, Jaydee Tungcab and Will Navarro. Heading and Go, both 25, are the team’s seniors with Lopez, 18, and Kai Sotto, 19, the only teeners. Indonesia’s elders are New York-born Akri Wisnu, 33 and Prosper, 32. Indonesia’s average height is 6-2 but size isn’t a handicap for Toroman. In the first qualifying window in February last year, 5-8 Andakara Prastawa and 5-11 Abraham Grahita torched the Philippines by combining for 45 points, 7-of-17 from three-point range. Gilas, however, won, 100-70. The difference in tonight’s game, Gilas will be without a single PBA player while in that rout last year, the Philippines was bannered by seven PBA regulars plus Thirdy Ravena. Dwight Ramos and Isaac Go are the only holdovers from  that squad playing tonight.

Gilas’ upset over South Korea was a stunner, considering the hosts led only 8:47 minutes the entire game. The Koreans’ biggest lead was 17 and the Philippines’ largest margin was five. Baldwin played a tactical, calculating game and when it came down to winning or losing in the last few minutes, Korea’s naturalized import Ricardo Ratliffe was almost out of gas, disrupting the flow of his team’s pace by slowing down. The Koreans had more assists, 24-13, more fastbreak points, 16-6 and more second chance points, 17-10 but their physical style led to two key players fouling out and a wide disparity in free throws with Gilas hitting 18-of-25 to only 4-of- 6 for the visitors. Ratliffe scored all four charities. Gilas tallied more paint points, 38-32 and bench points, 34-26. Five Gilas players hit in double figures compared to only two for Korea and the balanced offense was critical because it confused the defense. It was a classic case of the underdog keeping the gap close and stealing the game in the end.

“It was not a big surprise for me,” said Toroman, referring to the upset. “After (the second qualifying

window) in Bahrain, I was talking that this (Gilas) team is talented and athletic. Now, they’ve added two big players (Ange) Kouame and Sotto. They’re both good but my choice (as the best player) is Ramos. He looks like a European player with good size, he’s tough and a good shooter. Kai showed his talent but he has to work on his body and you can see that he missed playing the last two years. We’ll try to be as much as possible competitive with Gilas and push them to the limit. In this moment, Gilas is a better team than Indonesia.”

A keen Gilas observer who watched the Philippine-South Korea game via livestream in the US said Sotto can do more but “it was a good first game considering he hasn’t played team ball since Basketball Beyond Borders in February 2020 and even that was just an elevated scrimmage.” The source added: “If Kai continues on this trajectory and gets bigger and better in Australia, he’ll be a force in 2022. Credit to coach Tab for not allowing the team to fold up early. No one gives as much credit to how this young team literally clawed back from the jaws of death to punch out a win.”

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