GILAS Pilipinas overcame a shaky start and a pesky Saudi Arabia side to prevail, 78-66, in its 27th Fiba-Asia Men's Championship debut on Thursday night before a big crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The nationals didn't really seize control of the Group A match until the closing minutes of the first half when LA Tenorio and Ranidel de Ocampo conspired to put their biggest run of the game.
Still, the performance left a lot to be desired for a team which carries on its shoulders the hope of the 95 million Filipinos longing for the Philippines' return to the World Basketball Championship.
"It was pretty difficult. We're trying to manage for tomorrow's game and wanted to distribute the minutes of the players. We need the energy," said coach Chot Reyes, who was not a bit satisfied with the win but nonetheless took it as a birthday present as he turned 50 on Thursday.
"But we're glad to be able come out with a victory."
Tenorio and Larry Fonacier emerged as top scorers for Gilas with 12 points each, while Marcus Douthit had a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds.
The nationals will only have a 24-hour break before playing Jordan on Friday for their second game.
"The real battle is tomorrow (today) against Jordan," Reyes stressed.
The nationals played a more consistent game in the second half when they enjoyed as much as a 66-50 lead on a Gary David jumper with 6:06 left in the game.
But the Arabians just kept coming back, cutting the deficit to 59-66 following three straight three-pointers, two of them by Aymam Almuwallad.
The nationals kept Saudi Arabia at bay as June Mar Fajardo and Douthit scored on a basket each.
Almuwallad showed the way for Saudi with 18 points.
Gilas Pilipinas (78) - Tenorio 12, Fonacier 12, Douthit 10, De Ocampo 9, Pingris 8, Chan 6, Castro 6, Alapag 5, David 4, Norwood 2, Fajardo 2, Aguilar 2.
Saudi Arabia (66) - Almuwallad 18, Almarwani 12, Alhwsawi 11, Abo Jalas 9, Almarwani M. 8, Almuwallad Marzouq, Kabe 2, Belal 2, Alsager 0.
Quarterscores: 14-16; 35-28; 57-46; 78-66.