CHANGSHA, China - Gilas Pilipinas turned back a brave stand by Japan to put away a 81-70 win on Friday night and book a return trip to the Fiba Asia Championship final opposite host China at the Changsha Social Work Colleges Gymnasium here.
Jayson Castro and Andray Blatche once again carried the load for Gilas with 20 and 22 points, respectively, but it took a timely explosion of three-pointers from veteran Dondon Hontiveros to put away a Japanese side that shot the ball well and, being the underdog, played loosely.
The Japanese stayed within striking distance up until the final three-minute mark, 68-72, before Gilas went on a crucial six-point spurt started by a Ranidel de Ocampo follow-up and ended by Hontiveros' sixth three-pointer of the night, 78-68, with 1:20 minutes to go.
With their seventh successive victory following a shock opening loss to first-timer Palestine, the Philippines gets a shot at its first Asian title since 1986 in the 8:30 p.m. final against a young China team that ended the reign of Iran, 70-57, in the other half of the semifinals.
Interestingly, this will be the first Fiba-Asia final between the two countries currently embroiled in a territorial dispute since that 1986 final won by a Philippine team coached by Ron Jacobs.
At stake is the lone automatic berth allotted for Asia in next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The Philippines last sent a team to the quadrennial Games in 1972.
National coach Tab Baldwin, however, made it clear Gilas' goal is not to get to the final but go all the way.
Just like in their two previous meetings in the Jones Cup and in the preliminaries here, Gilas struggled against a Japan side that was shooting well and, being the underdog, was playing more loosely than the Filipinos.
Castro hit his stride early and Blatche was quick to impose his will inside, but not even that could keep the Japanese from opening as much as a seven-point lead behind Makoto Hiejima's 22 first-half points.
It took a closing 7-0 run to keep the game tied, 37-all, at halftime.
Gilas 81 - Blatche 22, Castro 20, Hontiveros 18, De Ocampo 8, Abueva 6, Romeo 3, Norwood 2, Pingris 2, Ganuelas 0, Thoss 0
Japan 70 – Hiejima 28, Takeuchi 18, Tabuse 9, Ota 5, Furukawa 4, Arao 3, Tanaka 2, Hirose 1, Ono 0, Matsui 0, Hashimoto 0
Quarterscores: 17-16, 37-37, 54-54, 81-70