As the final buzzer sounded, members of Gilas Pilipinas dropped to their knees. The hometown crowd was delirious, and many of them were in tears.
There was no heartbreak against the South Koreans this time. It was just pure elation.
Even without naturalized import Marcus Douthit the entire second half, the Nationals summoned the best from themselves to pull off a nerve-wracking 86-79 victory over archival South Korea Saturday night to gain the finals of the 27th FIBA Asia cage championship before a well-appreciative crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena.
More than exorcising the ghost of the Koreans that long haunted the team for the past three decades, the Nationals also punched their ticket back to the world stage for the first time since hosting the 1978 edition.
The Main Man: What he lacks in size, Jimmy Alapag makes up for it with his big heart.
The second smallest among the players at 5-foot-9–just a shade above diminutive playmaker LA Tenorio, the steady Talk ‘N Text backcourt general rose to the stiff challenge anew, coming through with a tourney-best 14 points built around four big triples on top of three rebounds and an assist.
Proving he still has what it takes even at 35, Alapag answered the call in the stretch with a pair of triples, the last putting the Nationals on safer ground with an 84-79 cushion going to the final 54 seconds.
Honorable Mentions: Also playing their hearts out to fill up the void left by naturalized center Marcus Douthit were forwards Marc Pingris and Ranidel De Ocampo.
Playing the game of his life, the 6-foot-5 Pingris turned from the team’s top low-post defender into a surprising inside force this time with a double-double outing of 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite spraining his left ankle in the early goings, the SanMig Coffee forward went a near-flawless 7-of-8 from the field while holding his own against South Korean counterparts Lee Seung Jun and Kim Joo Sung.
Not to be outdone, the 6-foot-6 De Ocampo also made his presence felt, notably in the fourth where he canned in seven of his 11 points off the bench.
Displaying his steely nerves, the Talk ‘N Text power forward racked up five straight points–the first, a go-ahead jumper and the second, a booming triple off a Jimmy Alapag inbound dish that put the Nationals in control 81-77 with 1:31 to play.
Game Turning Point: In a game that could go down as one of the most epic in the storied rivalry of two nations on the hardcourt, the Nationals seized the moment this time before a rabid hometown crowd.
After a Kim Tae Sool jumper put the Koreans ahead 77-76, De Ocampo banked in a tough jumper from the right flank then followed it up with a gutsy trey off an Alapag inbound feed for a four-point Gilas lead with 1:31 to play.
In the ensuing play, Larry Fonacier committed a poor foul off Yang Dong Geun, who calmly sank two freebies that kept the Koreans within striking distance 79-81.
Alapag, however, made sure the Nationals won’t be denied, canning in an earth-moving triple that gave them a five-point breather while sending the adoring fans–more than 18,000–on their feet going to the final 54 seconds.
Off a timeout, the Koreans had their hopes shattered away, with Kim Min Goo–who torched the Nationals with 27 points–having his shot blocked by Gilas defender Gabe Norwood.
That sequence led to Jayson William driving his way to the lane before handing off just in time to Marc Pingris, who easily put the ball in then came through with another block in the other end.
They Said It:
Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes: “Up to now, I still don’t know how we did it. We just kept fighting. We’re not going to giving up. They need to carry us out of that court.”
South Korean coach Yoo Jae Hak: “The pressure (coming from the fans) affected us.”
South Korean forward Lee Seung Jun: “It’s a tough loss.”
Philippines (86) - William 17, Pingris 16, Alapag 14, De Ocampo 11, Tenorio 9, Aguilar 8, Chan 5, Norwood 2, Douthit 2, Fonacier 2, David 0.
Korea (79) - Kim M. 27, Kim J. 11, Yang 11, Lee S. 10, Lee J. 10, Cho 6, Kim T. 2, Yoon 0. Kim Jongku 0.
Quarterscores: 15-19, 36-39, 65-56, 86-79