By JONAS TERRADO
Gilas Pilipinas’ bid for a record-extending 19th gold medal got off to a scary start Monday after surviving Thailand, 76-73, in the men’s basketball competitions of the 31st Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The Nationals came back from an early deficit then almost squandered a 10-point lead in the dying moments when the Thais got a chance to send the game into overtime with a three-point shot.
But Nakron Jainasuk couldn’t convert his attempt from the right side as time expired, giving coach Chot Reyes, Gilas, their fans inside the Trang Thi Gymnasium and back home a huge sigh of relief.
June Mar Fajardo, back in a Gilas jersey for the first time since the 2019 SEA Games in Manila, lorded the Thai defense underneath on his way to 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Thirdy Ravena scored 17 points while older brother Kiefer, gunning for an unprecedented sixth gold in the regional meet, dished out nine assists but his missed free throw late forced Gilas to make one last stop.
Gilas won despite trailing 21-11 late in the first quarter against a Thai squad powered by former NBA G-League player Antonio Price and ASEAN Basketball League veterans Moses Morgan and Freddie Lish.
The three, along with big man Chanathip Jakwaran composed the Thai team that won the men’s 3×3 gold over the weekend.
But Gilas, led by Fajardo, got its bearings in the second quarter and took a 38-34 halftime lead. The Filipinos were in command throughout the second half, though they couldn’t shake off their Thai counterparts.
A three-point play by Fajardo with over three minutes put Gilas ahead 73-63, and it looked like the game was already in the bag.
Thailand, however, mounted a last-ditch rally as Jainasuk hit back-to-back threes and Price scored to cut the margin down to two points, 75-73.
Kiefer split his two charities, muffing the second attempt, setting up a dramatic final moment that eventually favored Gilas.