CHOT Reyes had one simple line for Gilas Pilipinas, moments before the players stepped into the court for the biggest battle of their lives on Saturday night.
"This is our chance to write our own history," he said inside a quiet Gilas locker room.
Each one of the 12 men who went to battle wrapped in red, white, and blue took those words to heart as they put together a game for the ages, beating a heavily favored Korean side, 86-79, before a highly charged crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
The hosts went to the game as huge underdogs, not only for their history of heartbreaking losses to the Koreans in the Asian stage but more because of the opposition's splendid play in the tournament that included a king-sized upset of longtime nemesis China in the group stage.
As if the odds were not formidable enough, these only got bigger when 6-10 naturalized player Marcus Douthit limped off the floor with a hurting calf early in the second quarter, never to return again.
But the remaining men fit enough to run responded to the challenge, fighting for every loose ball, clawing for every inch, and never once backing down against a quick and deadly Korean side.
Best exemplifying the team's fighting heart on Saturday night was Marc Pingris, who along with Ranidel de Ocampo and Japeth Aguilar held the fort while the Koreans tried to pound the ball inside in Douthit's absence.
“Puso lang talaga,” said Pingris, still teary-eyed long after the final buzzer had sounded. “Sakripisyo lang talaga para sa bayan natin, kasi masarap maglaro.
"Dito talaga magpapakamatay kami.”
Jayson Castro topscored for Gilas Pilipinas with 17 points, Pingris added 16 despite pulling his hamstring late in the first half, Jimmy Alapag had 14 and de Ocampo added 11 including five straight points in a 60-second stretch to put the national team in front to stay 81-77 with 1:30 to go.
“We had prepared for this. We told ourselves that if we get into a position to win it, let’s not be surprised. Let’s expect to be in this game,” said Reyes, an emotional wreck after the win but able to gather his thoughts and speak clearly enough during the post-game interview.
The inspiring victory erased the stigma of the agonizing 69-68 loss suffered against South Korea in the semifinals of 2002 Busan Asian Games on a last-second three-pointer by an assassin named Lee Sang Min, and almost a decade later, a 70-68 setback to the same team in the battle for bronze of the 2011 Fiba-Asia meet in Wuhan, China.
No wonder Reyes later dedicated the victory to men like Jong Uichico and Olsen Racela, the former the coach of the 2002 team and the later the player who missed two free throws prior to Lee's game-winning free throw, and Rajko Toroman - coach of Gilas' 2011 team.
“We decided not to talk anymore about the past. I was lucky that I’ve never been in the receiving end (of heartbreaks against Korea), but (this win) was for Jong, Olsen, Rajko and for all those who have tough times against Korea,” said Reyes.