GILAS Pilipinas got a big, big scare from Hong Kong before pulling off a gut-wrenching 67-55 win on Wednesday night to formally emerge the best team in its group at the end of the 27th Fiba-Asia Championship preliminaries.
The nationals came out flat for the game and nearly paid for it, trailing Hong Kong for almost three quarters before somehow getting their acts together in the payoff period in hacking out the nasty win before a worried crowd of over 11,000 fans at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Marcus Douthit shrugged off the effects of a shin injury and played extended minutes to lead the nationals’ cause with 13 points and eight rebounds, while Jayson William and Gabe Norwood each had 11.
“Hats off to Hong Kong, they came out and pushed us and really challenged us to compete,” Norwood said after the game.
Not until LA Tenorio scored on back-to-back baskets in the final two minutes of the third did the nationals finally take control of the match, 44-39.
They had their biggest lead at 67-55 on a late basket by Marc Pingris in the final 16 seconds.
“I agree that Hong Kong played a great game, they came out with a great game plan. But we found a way to grind out this victory,” said an obviously dejected Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes.
“I told the players that we’ve been around for so long that we know there’s no such thing as a sure thing in sports, that there’s no easy way or there’s no sure thing. And I have to do what I had to do to make sure we get the win.”, Reyes added.
In sweeping all three games in the second round, the nationals finished tied with Chinese-Taipei and Qatar on top of Group E, all with identical 3-1 cards.
But by virtue of a higher quotient, Gilas Pilipinas claimed the No. 1 berth going into Friday’s crossover, knockout quarterfinals, thanks to a stunning win by Qatar over Taipei earlier in the day that knocked the previously unbeaten Taiwanese out of the top spot.
The nationals now play Kazakhstan – the No. 4 seed in Group F -in the playoffs after a rest day on Thursday.
With Douthit playing hurt, the nationals got clobbered by Hong Kong off the boards, 45-36, as Duncan Reid proved an imposing presence inside with 19 rebounds. The visitors also beat Gilas on second chance points, 25-8.
The nationals likewise struggled from the floor and hit only 21 percent from three-point range behind a 5-of-24 shooting, with Hong Kong even scoring more three-pointers with seven.
“I think their (nationals) outside shooting struggled tonight,” said Reid, who added 12 points. “I’m just very proud to have played against such a very good team.”
Hong Kong jumped off to a fast start and took several 10-point lead in the first half, the last at 29-19 on a basket by Reid with three minutes left in the second quarter.
The visitors eventually settled for a 33-28 edge at the break as the nationals closed the period on a 9-4 run.