IT was a silver-medal finish which obviously glittered like gold for Gilas Pilipinas.
The national team fell to a big, bruising Iran squad in their title match for the 27th Fiba-Asia Championship on Sunday night, 85-71, and settled for a runner-up campaign that more than exceeded the expectations of a nation whose passion for basketball knows no bounds.
Gilas missed the service of injured big man Marcus Douthit, but gave the three-time champion all it can handle in its toughest test yet in a tournament it dominated behind a nine-game sweep.
The combo of Jayson Castro and Jimmy Alapag together with the rest of the nationals all tried in vain to keep pace with the Iranians, whose emphatic advantage in size and heft made the big difference in a game played before a mammoth crowd the Mall of Asia Arena.
“Unfortunately, it ended the way it did. Obviously, everybody wanted to win the gold. But without Marcus (Douthit), it was really a difficult task to achieve,” said Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes.
The silver medal was the highest achievement by a Philippine basketball team in a major international tournament since a similar finish attained by an all-pro team coached by the legendary Robert Jaworski in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing.
But more importantly, it assured the country of a return trip to the 2014 Fiba-World Cup after last competing in the quadrennial meet in 1978.
The national team joins Iran and bronze medalist Korea as Asian representatives to the world championship in Spain next year.
The second-place finish was also the highest for the Philippines since a team coached by Ron Jacobs and led by Allan Caidic, Hector Calma, Samboy Lim and naturalized players Dennis Still and Jeff Moore won the championship in Kuala Lumpur in 1985.
Even with the Fiba-World Cup berth already in the bag as early as Saturday when it beat South Korea, 86-79, in an emotionally-charged semifinal match, Gilas still gave Hamed Hadadi and the Iranians a tough, good fight to the thrill of the 19,989 crowd that included President Aquino and boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao.
The nationals stayed with the Iranians for the first 20 minutes of the game, before a crucial third quarter run allowed the newly-crowned champions the opening they needed to finally take control.
“We fought for 20 minutes, but with superior size, good players, and great coaching, it was just too much to ask from the players. I’m very, very proud of our boys,” Reyes stressed.
Without Douthit, the 7-foot-2 Hadadi reinforced his stature as the best big man in Asia, torching Gilas for 29 points and 16 rebounds to finish as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Together with Samad Nikkah Bahrami and Mahdi Kamrany, Hadadi sparked a 10-2 run as the Iranians turned a 35-36 deficit into a 45-36 lead.
The champions, cheered on by a motley crowd of Iranians based in the country, never looked back from there.
A huge Iran flag was later unfurled by its supporters at the gallery section when the outcome of the match was already settled, while players jogged around the playing court holding another Iranian flag just shortly after the final buzzer sounded.
“We fought them tooth and nail. We were right there. If we had our big guy, who knows, we could have given them a better fight. But Iran is a great, great team,” Reyes added.
William, named as part of the Mythical selection along with Haddadi, Iranian Oshin Sahakian, Lin Chih-chieh of Chinese-Taipei, and Kim Mingoo of Korea, led Gilas with 18 points, while Alapag was the only other player to finish in double figures with 13.
“Today’s game was the toughest for us, because we know 20,000 fans were behind the Philippine team. They find new energy, new energy to fight till the end,” said Mehmed Becirovic, the Greek coach of Iran.
Iran (85) – Hadadi 29, Bahrami 19, Kamrany 15, Sahakian 12, Afagh 4, Davoudichegani 2, Sohrabnejad 2, Kardoust 2, Arghavan 0.
Gilas Pilipinas (71) – William 18, Alapag 13, De Ocampo 9, Tenorio 8, Chan 7, Aguilar 4, Norwood 3, Fonacier 3, Pingris 3, David 2, Fajardo 1.
Quarterscores: 17-15; 35-34; 62-53; 85-71.