By JONAS TERRADO
The fearless group of youngsters representing Gilas Pilipinas nearly pulled off the “impossible dream” early Thursday (Manila time) after pushing world powerhouse Serbia to the max before absorbing an 83-76 loss in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the latter’s home floor in Belgrade.
Given little chance not only to win but also to make the game competitive, Gilas defied the odds after battling back from a 16-point third quarter deficit to even take the lead at 74-73 on a layup by RJ Abarrientos with 3:50 remaining.
But upset bid of coach Tab Baldwin’s squad was thwarted by 7-foot-3 NBA player Boban Marjanovic, who scored the next six points to make sure that Serbia won’t suffer an embarrassing defeat in front of mostly its home supporters at the Alexandar Nikolic Hall.
At the same time, Gilas muffed eight of its final nine attempts, some of which were open looks from three-point country that all but ended the quest to orchestrate one of the biggest victories in Philippine basketball.
Even in defeat, smiles were all around the Gilas huddle, given the expectations that the team with an average of 22 years old would suffer a defeat almost similar to the 59-point romp of the all-PBA national squad in the 2019 FIBA World Cup in Foshan, China.
There’s also a feeling of satisfaction back home from those who either woke up early or stayed up late just to see Gilas perform against a team ranked fifth in the world and a regular contender in the Olympics and FIBA competitions.
Confidence is certainly high for Gilas going into its final assignment in Group A of the Belgrade OQT on Friday, July 2 when it plays Dominican Republic for a spot in the semifinals against either Italy or Puerto Rico, teams that are in Group B.
Whether Gilas can carry that performance into the game slated at 2:30 a.m. Manila time the following day against the Dominicans remains to be seen.
Dominican Republic lost 94-76 to Serbia in the Belgrade OQT opener Tuesday, June 30, but not before the host country was able to pull away in the fourth.
Four players scored in double figures with Kouame leading the way with 17 points on top of seven rebounds and three blocks.
Lefty guard Jordan Heading hit 13 points aided by four triples while Kai Sotto and Justine Baltazar added 10 points apiece.
Abarrientos, who had his struggles early on against Serbian legend Milos Teodosic, was able to play better in the second to finish with nine points.
Gilas fell behind, 56-40, with less than seven minutes to go in the third when Marjanovic found Dejan Davidovac for a basket, only to close the period outscoring Serbia, 22-11, to trail 67-62 going into the fourth.
Carl Tamayo’s three and Mike Nieto’s bank shot to begin the fourth allowed Gilas to tie things up at 67-all in the early moments. Serbia answered with six straight points before the Philippines responded by scoring seven in a row that ended on Abarrientos’ layup for its only lead of the contest.
That, however, set the stage for Marjanovic, the Dallas Mavericks center, to score back-to-back baskets underneath for 79-76 Serbia. Baltazar reduced the deficit to a single point while stops on the other end gave Gilas chances to reclaim the lead.
But Baltazar and Belangel, who had six assists and three steals despite scoring just two points, missed a pair of open threes during the latter part of the match and Marjanovic capitalized by hitting a turnaround one-hander off Kouame for 81-76 Serbia, 36 seconds to go in the fourth.
Marjanovic had 25 points and 10 rebounds, Ognjen Dobric was a menace early for Gilas with his corner three-point shot before finishing with 16 points and Teodosic added 13 points and six assists off the bench.