ARMED with renewed confidence after receiving the backing of top sports patron Manny V. Pangilinan, the Gilas Pilipinas youth team will fly to Tehran, Iran late Monday with the promise of defying the tall odds in the Fiba-Asia Under-16 championships.
Made up of top high school standouts from different schools and universities in the country, the youth team coached by Jamike Jarin will hope to duplicate, if not surpass, the country’s fourth-place finish in the last two editions of the tournament.
“So far, okay naman ang morale ng team. We just want the public to know of our important campaign,” said Jarin, who has been handling the team’s practices and training since January.
The Gilas juniors will be bannered by Southeast Asian Basketball Association (Seaba) Under-16 MVP Jolo Mendoza, Nieto twins Michael and Joseph, Richard Escoto and Emmanuel Panlilio in the absence of several standouts who played key roles in the country's conquest of the Seaba title.
Among those skipping the tournament are Kobe Paras, Richie Rivero, Dino San Juan and Norris Decapia.
The young Paras is set to compete in the world 3-on-3 championships, Rivero and San Juan failed to get the green light from La Salle as they are still in the thick of the title battle in the UAAP juniors, while Decapia is still tied to his mother ballclub San Beda Red Cubs in the NCAA.
As a result, the team will be one of the smallest in the tournament with an average heights of six feet. But the coaches are undaunted.
“Kaya naman ng team natin ito. Tayo ang shortest compared sa ibang countries (pero) puso na lang ang magbabangon sa atin, like the regular Gilas team,” said assistant coach Jig Mendoza.
“Dadaanin natin ito sa speed at shooting,” added Mendoza.
Asked if the team can overcome the height disadvantage in its bid for a podium finish, Jarin was non-committal.
“I am not promising a placing but one thing is for sure, we will be very competitive and we will give our more than 100 percent in every game,” said Jarin, whose team will face Kazakhstan on Thursday before meeting Chinese-Taipei on Friday.
The Philippines is assured of advancing to the second round of the 14-team tournament as there are only three teams in its bracket.
In the last edition of the Fiba Asia Under-16 which China ruled, a Philippine team coached by Olsen Racela finished just out of the podium, failing to salvage the bronze medal after losing to Japan, 81-94.
The country’s participation in this year’s meet was put in limbo due to sponsorship woes until the PLDT group stepped in, although MVP Sports Foundation president Al Panlilio said they are still open for support from other entities.
“Obviously this is one of the programs of the SBP. All-out support naman tayo sa basketball programs from the Gilas, to the elite, to our Under-16, to the grassroots level,” Panlilio said.
“We’re open to get other groups who are willing to help out. Hindi naman naming kaya na kami lang, dapat may tulong din sa iba,” said Panlilio of the team previously backed by Nokia and Energen.