Winning the 2016 SEABA Stankovic Cup may not be a big deal for most Pinoys. After all, we’ve ruled the Southeast Asian (SEA) region in the sport for decades. But there’s something special about this year’s victory of the young men’s National team called the Gilas Cadets.
Oh they were surely put to the test in this tournament, particularly by host Thailand. The Thais were spectacular, blasting other teams before bowing to the perennial champs. But the first encounter with the Filipinos was surprisingly neck-and-neck. Gilas literally escaped from the Thais’ tight grip in endgame, thanks to timely treys by Mike Tolomia and Kevin Ferrer. From a 60-63 deficit with less than two minutes left, the former Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) stars came to the rescue to make the final count 66-65 for Gilas. But even before the final buzzer sounded, Thai star Chitchai Ananti managed to heave a desperation shot from mid-court that almost hit its mark. It was indeed a colossal relief for the Philippine squad as losing to another SEA team would’ve been embarrassing even for an elimination round game.
But let’s give both Gilas and the Thais some credit. First, the Thais looked really prepared and determined to win this tournament in home grounds. Particularly impressive were their ball movement and scrambling defense. And they have size and experience. Ananti is undeniably the team’s go-to-guy. He tallied 14 markers and ten boards in their first meeting with the Philippines. But it was their defense that drew praises from Cadet coach Nash Racela. It’s not easy defending against Racela’s offense because it usually creates a lot of open shots for the team. But the Thais were aggressive and had the length to challenge all shots. As a result, the Pinoys shot a woeful 3-of-37 from beyond the arc. Fortunately, two of the three made shots came in the final moments of the game.
As for the Cadets, preparing for this tournament came with many challenges, as did the Philippine squads that came before them. The players had individual commitments with their respective schools and commercial teams, which gave the team little opportunities to be complete in practice. In fact, the team barely had three weeks to prepare. This is why Racela opted to include mostly players from his college team, the defending UAAP champs Far Eastern University (FEU) Tamaraws, namely Mac Belo, Tolomia, Roger Pogoy, Russel Escoto, Raymar Jose, and incoming sophomore Ken Holmqvist. This gave Racela some chemistry and familiarity with his dribble-drive motion offense.
Racela also borrowed from the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) rookies Troy Rosario and Almond Vosotros. Rosario, the PBA’s second pick overall last year, proved to be the team’s most prolific player, leading the team in scoring in the event. He unloaded 17 points against the Thais in the championship game. Vosotros, along with Ateneo star Von Pessumal, was the team’s designated outside gunner. University of Sto. Tomas hotshot Kevin Ferrer added to the firepower and length of the squad. Arellano U’s Jio Jalalon, arguably the best amateur point guard in the country today, was the lone representative of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). And from the high school ranks is Chiang Kai Shek slotman Jonas Tibayan.
After the scare from the Thailand game, the Cadets bowed to make a statement in the finals. It was still a tight game for the most part, after a 22-all standoff at the end of the opening period, and a halftime score of 49-45 in favor of Gilas. At the end of the third canto, the Pinoys were just up by five at 67-62. But the payoff period was a different story as the depth and talent of the Pinoys came into sight. From 69-66 early in the fourth, the Nationals stepped on the gas to break away for good and finish with the 97-80 win for the title. Also, Gilas shot better from long-range this time, hitting twelve triples.
What’s unique about this team? No stars, just a bunch of talented ballers working together to achieve a common goal. But if you look closer, they all have the size and outside shooting ability. This makes the future of Philippine basketball truly exciting.