SEVILLE, SPAIN - Gilas Pilipinas stood on the threshold, again, of a historic victory in the Fiba Wold Cup, until a small man with a big heart altered the game's course in the endgame.
Unfortunately, he's not a Filipino but a Puerto Rican.
One of the few players here who is just the same size as Filipino guards, JJ Barea showed his NBA pedigree as he willed Puerto Rico to a 77-73 victory that knocked Gilas out of contention for a place in the knockout phase.
The gritty Minnesota Timberwolves guard scored 10 of the Puerto Ricans' final 12 points as he personally turned around a game Gilas was poised to win, 70-67, after an Andray Blatche three-pointer with 3:33 to go.
The Pinoys' guns, however, fell agonizingy silent after that, missing five shots and turning the ball over twice as Puerto Rico wrested the upperhand, 75-70, on 10 successive points from the audacious Barea.
"I don't usually commend individual players but I have to praise Barea. He's a leader not only on the court but also on the hotel, the dugout," said Puerto Rico coach Paco Olmos.
The NBA veteran finished with 30 points, five rebounds and two assists as Puerto Rico, without starters Carlos Arroyo and Angel Vassallo and with Renaldo Balkman slowed down by a foot injury, stayed in the hunt for a place in the 16-team second round.
"I'd like to comment Gilas, they're a great team," Barea said later. "They have great guards who can make shots, just like me."
Gilas' fourth successive loss came as a bitter pill to swallow for coach Chot Reyes, who saw his side come close to a victory just like in games against Argentina and Croatia - only to fall short in the end.
"We just couldn't make shots in the end," said Reyes. "I guess we have the skills to play at this level but not the experience to win."
The endgame foldup also put to naught a whirlwind start for the Filipinos, who opened as much as a 14-point lead behind an 18-0 run in the first quarter, 27-13, and had the game in control until the third.
However, a couple of costly turnovers - they had 19 in all in the game and 15 in the second half alone - stalled the Filipinos' momentum while the guns of their outside shooters turned cold.
Olmos said he also made the gamble of trying to stop Gilas' shooters at the risk of giving up points on Andray Blatche, who finished with 25 points and 14 rebounds but with six turnovers.
LA Tenorio added 18 points while Paul Lee had 10 for Gilas, which was left with nothing to play for going to its final Group B game against Senegal on Thursday.