Gi­las-Azkals-UAAP roller coaster

The Freeman - - SPORTS -

In the past week, the Philip­pine sports scene has been taken on a roller coaster of a ride of big wins, tough losses, and tons learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. It wasn’t ex­actly the Christmas present that we were wish­ing for, but we’ll take it and live with it.

First the bad news. At the na­tional team level, our Philip­pine na­tional teams in bas­ket­ball and foot­ball lost a string of four straight games. In bas­ket­ball, Gi­las Pilip­inas couldn’t make the most of a backto-back home­s­tand at the MOA Arena, los­ing to Kaza­khstan (88-92) and Iran (70-78) in the lat­est win­dow of the FIBA Asia Qual­i­fiers for the 2019 FIBA World Cup. In foot­ball, at the semi­fi­nals of the AFF Suzuki Cup, the Azkals bowed to Viet­nam twice, on iden­ti­cal scores of 1-2. The first match was played at the Panaad Sta­dium in Ba­colod while the sec­ond match was played in Hanoi, Viet­nam.

Of the two, the losses of Gi­las were hands­down the tougher ones to ac­cept. We were con­fi­dent of win­ning over both teams and in­stead lost both games. With new head coach Yeng Guiao at the helm and what was touted to be one of the strongest teams as­sem­bled for in­ter­na­tional play, ev­ery­thing looked good. The sce­nario was ac­tu­ally close to per­fect for us. The first game of the backto-back home games was against a team that we whipped at the Asian Games, 96-59. The PBA had also come out to make ev­ery player avail­able for duty, giv­ing Coach Yeng the en­tire PBA pool of play­ers at his dis­posal. With June Mar Fa­jardo, Greg Slaugh­ter, Chris­tian Stand­hardinger, Jayson Cas­tro, Mar­cio Las­siter and com­pany on board, many had said this was a very strong team and could be one of the strongest teams the coun­try had ever put to­gether. The PBA also re­set the cham­pi­onship series be­tween Mag­no­lia and Alaska in or­der to make way for these Gi­las games. The weather was fair on both play­dates, mak­ing it easy for fans to troop to the MOA Arena. Traf­fic was sur­pris­ingly smooth (at least for the Iran game) that we got there an hour be­fore tip-off. There was no need to travel long dis­tance in this home­s­tand, with every­one stay­ing home for two straight games. There wasn’t any­thing else you could ask for if you were Gi­las Pilip­inas. The stage was set and they just had to go out and win both games. But we didn’t and will now have to earn our spot to the FIBA World Cup the hard way. We now need to beat both Kaza­khstan and Qatar at their home­courts in Fe­bru­ary, and pray that Ja­pan loses at least one of its re­main­ing games in the last win­dow of games be­fore the FIBA World Cup. This bleacher bum was at the Gi­las-Iran game, and a loss re­ally does feel so much worse when you’re there up close and per­sonal. We pray that the team re-groups, learn from all this and come out a more de­ter­mined team come Fe­bru­ary.

Mean­while, the Azkals were look­ing for Part 2 of “Mir­a­cle in Hanoi” to make it to the fi­nals of the AFF Suzuki Cup. But alas, it wasn't meant to be and the bet­ter team did win. In the Ba­colod game, Viet­nam scored first while the Azkals tied the game be­fore half­time. But Viet­nam scored shortly after the break, cre­at­ing a mo­men­tum took them all the way to an­other 2-1 in the sec­ond leg for an ag­gre­gate score of 4-2. The game in Viet­nam was all Viet­nam as they con­trolled posses­sion and the tempo of the match. The Azkals had dif­fi­culty break­ing down the de­fense of the home team and ergo tak­ing clear shots at the Viet­nam goal. Down 0-2, the lone goal of James Younghus­band in the 89th minute was a lit­tle too late to turn the tide in a match that the Azk­las needed to win by two goals to win the two-leg semi­fi­nals. This loss wasn’t as tough a pill to swal­low as that of Gi­las. We have never been known to be a pow­er­house in the re­gion, and a semi­fi­nals stint is al­ready an achieve­ment although a top two fin­ish would’ve been re­ally sweet.

And how can we for­get the UAAP Fi­nals? Ate­neo de Manila bagged its sec­ond straight UAAP bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onship, a well-de­served ti­tle un­der the lead­er­ship of Coach Tab Bald­win. Although peo­ple will al­ways talk about play­ers win­ning cham­pi­onships, I felt that this was won more by Coach Tab, Ate­neo’s leader of the band. He led and every­one else fol­lowed. I have never seen so much re­spect given by play­ers for their coach, re­flected in the way they run the sys­tem that Coach Tab in­stilled over the past three years. It’s re­ally sim­ple. If a team be­lieves, lives and ex­e­cutes the leader’s sys­tem, win­ning is a sure thing. But ex­actly what does Coach Tab preach? He al­ways talks about ex­cel­lence as a goal. And if cham­pi­onships are won along the way, then so be it. At Je­suit schools, this is trans­lated as seek­ing the “magis” in ev­ery­thing one does. Simpe lang, di ba? But the sur­prise for me is how much praise and ku­dos UP re­ceived for los­ing in a fi­nals series. I’ve never seen this much adu­la­tion for a los­ing team. But all is also well de­served, es­pe­cially for a team that was 0-14 in Paul Desiderio’s first sea­son; and now that Paul says farewell, he tops this off with a stint in the fi­nals. This Mar­ron jour­ney’s most vis­i­ble “cham­pi­onship” was how it united the UP com­mu­nity. It’s al­most fairy-tale like and I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this is later turned into a tele-nov­ela of sorts. We also wit­nessed a wellplayed series, both on and off the court with the spirit of sports­man­ship pre­vail­ing (save for a few iso­lated boo­boos). It was ma­roon and blue cheer­ing against one an­other, yet co-ex­ist­ing in the spirit of fun and fair play. It was a UAAP Fi­nals that pro­duced ac­tu­ally two cham­pi­ons. Not bad at all for this roller coaster ride.

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