AN audacious Gilas Pilipinas team playing without Marcus Douthit for almost three quarters put on a heroic stand on Saturday night, outplaying favored Korea, 86-79, to reach the Fiba-Asia Championship finals and clinch a return to the world championships for the first time in 35 years.
Heroes were aplenty for Gilas on an emotional night at the Mall of Asia Arena which saw the hosts buck the departure of their naturalized big man behind the hot shooting of Jimmy Alapag, the fearless drives of Jayson Castro, and the heroic stand inside the paint of Marc Pingris and Ranidel de Ocampo.
The result was the most significant achievement by a Philippine team on the international stage in 28 years, or not since a team backstopped by naturalized players Jeff Moore and Dennis Still and coached by Ron Jacobs won this same championship in 1985.
By breaking their jinx against a Korean team that had broken their hearts one too many times since the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the nationals clinched a place in the final opposite two-time champion Iran and wrapped up one of three berths to next year's world championships in Spain.
Pandemonium broke out inside the MOA Arena as soon as the final buzzer sounded, with the players jumping for joy at centercourt and coach Chot Reyes openly weeping on the bench as a sea of white-clad supporters celebrated in the stands.
In terms of impact, the scenes replicated those that happened at the old Rizal Memorial Coliseum exactly 40 years ago when an all-Filipino team led by Robert Jaworski and Bogs Adornado turned back a Shin Dong Pa-led Korean team in the ABC (forerunner of Fiba-Asia championship) final.
Such a heart-warming result seemed far-fetched just three quarters earlier when Douthit, a pillar of strength for Gilas inside the paint, suddenly limped off the court despite no apparent contact after hurting a right calf he had previously hurt in the Qatar game.
But as Douthit retreated to the dugout ahead of the team never to return to the game again, a group of Filipinos on the floor showed what grit and heart was all about in a brave stand that put the Koreans on the back foot.
With Pingris - bless his heart - holding his own against opponents a head taller than him, Gilas kept the Koreans within sight at halftime, 31-35, before launching a torrent of bombs from beyond the three-point arc in the third quarter to take control.
Alapag, the smallest player on the floor, ended that run with a follow-up basket and a three-pointer that gave Gilas its first double-digit lead, 63-53, with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Korea, which has all but owned the Philippines from the time Lee Sang Min's three-pointer denied an all-pro team a place in the Asian Games final in Busan in 2002, didn't go down without a fight, regaining the lead, 75-73, behind a four-point play by Kim Ming Go with 4:40 to go.
What unfolded after that would be remembered by basketball fans for years to come.
Alapag hit two back-breaking three-pointers, de Ocampo added a three-pointer of his own and a drive, Pingris a follow-up and Gabe Norwood a momentum-deflating block as Gilas ended the game with a 13-3 run that left the stunned Koreans as limp as kimchi at the end of the game.
Gilas Pilipinas (86) – William 17, Pingris 16, Alapag 14, Tenorio 9, Aguilar 8, Chan 5, Norwood 2, Douthit 2, Fonacier 2, David 0.
South Korea (79) – Kim M 27, Yang 11, Kim JS 11, Lee SJ 10, Lee J 10, Cho 6, Kim S 2, Kim TS 2, Yoon 0, Kim J 0.
Quarterscores: 15-19; 36-39; 65-56; 86-79.