SEVLLE, SPAIN - World No. 3 Argentina was made to sweat in the Fiba World Cup on Monday night (Tuesday morning, Manila time) before pulling off an 85-81 victory over a brave Philippine side that went down fighting to the very end.
NBA veteran Andres Nocioni made three clutch free throws in the endgame to spare Argentina blushes in a match where it trailed the Filipinos by as much as 10 points early and saw a 15-point lead almost disappear into thin air.
Jimmy Alapag, the smallest man on the floor, had a lot to do with that, hitting five three-pointers in the second half alone - including one from way, way out with 2:08 to go that pulled Gilas within 81-82 and silenced Argentina's army of blue-clad fans.
Gilas, however, never scored after that as Andray Blatche missed a three-point try and Jayson Castro made the costliest mistake of all, committing a double touch violation after his three-point attempt was anticipated by Argentina defender Pablo Prigioni with 12.7 seconds to go.
"As a coach, it's my responsibility to get good shots for my players," said Gilas coach Chot Reyes as he refused to blame Castro for the late-game miscue. "My only regret in losing is that my boys tried so hard and I failed to get them a win.
"I failed to give our country a win."
Forced to foul, the Filipninos gave up two Nocioni free throws with 6.6 seconds to go that sealed Gilas' third successive loss in this tournament - the game showing a similar pattern to the 78-81 loss it suffered at the hands of Croatia on Saturday.
However, the Filipinos have lost those three games by an average of 6.33 points while coming one possession away from beating two teams inside the Top 16 in the world.
"If you had told me before the tournament that we would lose by four points to Argentina and we would have a chance to win, then I would be very happy."
Ranidel De Ocampo topscored with 18 points while Alapag had 15 and Gabe Norwood 14 for Gilas, which took an early 12-2 lead after back-to-back three-pointers by Jayson Castro then controlled most of the first half against an Argentina team ranked just behind Team USA and host Spain in the world rankings.
That start appeared to rattle the Argentinians as Gilas produced some breathtaking moments - none bigger than a one-handed dunk by Norwood over Indiana Pacer Luis Scola on a fastbreak with 5:16 to go for a 17-7 lead.
Norwood made another in the third, faking off a pass to Blatche then taking off for another in-your-face slam over Marcos Mata.
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Gilas shot better than Argentina, making 31 of 51 shots for a 51-percent clip that included a 13-of-27 clip from beyond the three-point arc.
The much-shorter Filipinos also outrebounded Scola and Co., 39-35.
Gilas took a couple more 10-point leads in the first half even without Blatche, who picked up his second foul less than two minutes in and never returned to the match until there was only 2:30 left in the half.
Argentina, however, soon hit its stride, going on a 12-0 run behind three-pointers by Pablo Prigioni and Marcos Mata to grab the upperhand for the first time, 40-36, with 57 seconds to go.
But one more problem presented itself for Argentina late in the half as Scola picked up his third foul with 44 seconds left.
Argentina - Scola 19, Mata 17, Herrmann 10, Laprovittola 10, Campazzo 9, Nocioni 9, Prigioni 8, Gutierrez 3, Gallizi 0, Bortolin 0, Safar 0
Gilas Pilipinas - De Ocampo 18, Alapag 15, Norwood 14, Castro 11, Blatche 6, Fajardo 6, Tenorio 3, Aguilar 2, Chan 0, Pingris 0
Quarterscores: 22-25; 38-43; 71-61; 85-81