MATT Nieto couldn't be any prouder of how his "apprentice" SJ Belangel stepped up and played the role of the hero for Gilas Pilipinas in its pulsating 81-78 win over Korea Wednesday in the third window of the 2021 Fiba Asia Cup qualifiers.
"The bank is open on Wednesday night!," a jubilant Nieto told Spin.ph as he celebrated Belangel's game-winning trey at the buzzer that pushed the Philippines to formally qualify to the 2021 Fiba Asia Cup.
"Hindi ko na alam para kanino yun, mukhang broken play na nga, but whether tsamba o hindi, a win is a win and we'll take it."
Nieto is just overjoyed with how Belangel, his junior in Ateneo, has seized the opportunity in his national team debut.
"I'm very proud of him lalo na I was able to take him under my wing, na natulungan natin siya sa development niya. Even though we know na marami pa kaming room for improvement, very proud talaga ako kay SJ," he said.
Gilas entered the Clark bubble depleted as a spate of injuries plagued its backcourt, with Nieto, Rey Suerte, and Dave Ildefonso all missing the trip and left the responsibility to their younger peers such as Belangel, Dwight Ramos, RJ Abarrientos, and Jaydee Tungcab.
"Sabi ko lang sa kanya at sa lahat ng guards that they have to control the team, lalo na sa mga late stretches at sa mga crucial parts kasi doon na nagkakagulo yung mga decisions. Sila dapat maging leader, mapa-tumira sila or pumasa, they have to control the game," said Nieto, who is on the road to recovery from his hand injury.
But after Wednesday's game, Belangel, the smallest player in the pool at 5-foot-10, stood the mightiest for Gilas at the buzzer as he capped off his performance of 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists in 23 minutes of play.
For Nieto, it brings back memories of his game-winner against Chinese Taipei in the 2018 Jones Cup as he joked that finally, Belangel has his own highlight moment -- against Korea, no less.
"Lahat na lang ginagaya niya," he kidded, before turning serious and said, "Sa amin naman, masaya kami na nagtutulungan lang kami. Ganoon talaga yung nagagawa ng tiwala ni coach Tab [Baldwin] at alam ko na matagal pa kami magsasama niyan sa Gilas."
But Nieto warned his peers not to feel overconfident from this win and said, "Ganoon lang ulit sa next games. Pagkatiwalaan lang nila yung sistema ni coach Tab dahil tried and tested na yan. Kita naman natin ang resulta."
Gilas takes a one-day break before facing Indonesia on Friday, and Korea again on Sunday.
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