SEVILLE, SPAIN - Gilas Pilipinas lost its opening game in the Fiba World Cup on Saturday but earned the world's attention and respect after a fighting stand against a tall Croatian team.
Six free throws by NBA players Bojan Bogdanovic and Danjan Rudez late in overtime enabled Croatia to escape with an 81-78 victory, denying the Filipinos an epic feat in a game that left hundreds of Filipinos inside the Centro de Portivo San Pablo stadium choked full with emotion.
Giving away several inches in height and a lot more in terms of experience on the world stage, Gilas sent shockwaves through this laid-back city on a lazy Saturday afternoon when they led by three late in regulation and almost stole a win on Jeff Chan's missed jumper at the buzzer.
The Philippine side made its last stand on a three-pointer by naturalized player Andray Blatche with eight seconds left that cut Croatia's lead to one, 78-79, with eight seconds to go.
However, two free throws by Rudez, who just last month signed a three-year deal to play for the Indiana Pacers in the NBA, and a three-point miss by Jayson Castro on the other end had Gilas falling just short of a famous victory.
In the end, Gilas coach Chot Reyes was left to rue a technical foul for flopping called on Castro in the final seconds of the third period which led to a five-point swing that gave Croatia a 57-49 lead.
"The ref called a techical foul on Jayson that I can't believe," Reyes rued after the game. "That's the difference in the game right there."
Bogdanovic led Croatia with 26 points, Krunoslav Simon had 12, and Dario Saric with 10 for Croatia, bronze medalist during the 1994 edition of the quadrennial meet in Canada.
Blatche topscored for Gilas with 28 points on 10-of-24 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three-point range. He also had 12 rebounds, but committed seven turnovers.
Chan, whose outside snipings sparked the national team's comeback following a slow start, added 17 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, while Marc Pingris had 10.
"Umpisa pa lang, maganda na ang feel ko sa tira," said Chan.
Surprisingly, Croatia only had a 43-38 edge in rebounding despite the obvious disparity in height over the Filipinos.
Gilas also shot better from three-point range behind a 10-of-28 shooting (36 percent), while Croatia, a noted deadly three-point shooting team, was only 7-of-25 from the same field.
Croatia (81) - Bogdanovic 26, Simon 12, Saric 10, Ukic 5, Markuta 5, Zoric 4, Rudez 4, Lafayette 4, Babic 3.
Gilas Pilipinas (78) - Blatche 28, Chan 17, Pingris 10, Castro 6, De Ocampo 5, Alapag 4. Tenorio 2, Norwood 2, Fajardo 2, Lee 2, Aguilar 0.
Quarterscores: 23-9; 37-31; 57-49; 71-71 (reg); 81-78.