Gilas-Azkals-UAAP roller coaster
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.