Gilas Pilipinas head coach and program director Tab Baldwin expected rust from his players when they stepped on the floor against China in a friendly, Wednesday afternoon at the AUF Sports & Cultural Center in Pampanga.
After all, it had been three days since their 3-0 sweep of the Clark window — including two wins over continental rival South Korea.
Moreover, Gilas were without Dwight Ramos and Carl Tamayo in the tune-up match. Baldwin ended up rotating through just 11 men.
But there was no drop-off, which brought a rare smile on the American-Kiwi head coach.
“I was pleased with the way the guys responded. It was a high-energy game. China played very physical basketball and it pushed us to the limit. They got off to a good start,” said Baldwin.
“Again, we just showed that fighting spirit and found ways, came back, and at times looked very good out there — looked like a team that was in control. I think we led most of the game.”
Despite falling 10-0 early, Gilas were able to end the opening quarter behind just two points, 16-18, thanks to Angelo Kouame, Jordan Heading, RJ Abarrientos, and even Geo Chiu.
Kai Sotto then erupted in the second frame to help give the Philippines a 41-35 lead entering a quick break.
Lebron Lopez provided some energy plays in the third canto, while Heading continued his surge.
After some big buckets from William Navarro, Justine Baltazar, and Mike Nieto, Gilas went up 78-71 with a minute and four seconds left.
That’s when China punished the foul-ridden Filipinos. It hacked at the lead until it was down to three, 79-76, with 1.2 seconds left. Of course, Baldwin ordered a duty foul to only give two free throws to the Chinese.
Zhao Jiwei had other plans, though. He made the first and intentionally missing the second. Seven-foot-five Liu Chuanxing was right there for a clutch putback to end the game with a draw.
“It was an interesting game. I think we found the balance by the tied score,” chuckled Baldwin.
Still, Baldwin felt proud of the effort of the guys, especially facing a powerhouse China team coming off their own sweep in Pool B of the Qualifiers.
“We dealt with something different today compared with what we dealt with during the window. I’m pleased with the progress.
“Again, we’ll break the video down and figure out what we need to work on more. We played a lot more zone tonight and our zone looked okay. A lot of positives out of the game,” he said.
However, Baldwin only felt pleased since he’d set his bar for the young team extremely low.
Baldwin knows that what they will face in the Belgrade Olympic Qualifying Tournament — namely Serbia and the Dominican Republic — will be notches higher than what the likes of South Korea, the Indonesia, and, even, China gave them.
“Look, I think the team has exceeded my expectations in most areas. But I was pretty realistic coming in and my expectations weren’t very high,” he shared.
“The fact that they exceeded my expectations doesn’t really take any of the pressure off from trying to make progress in every practice and every game. We still have a long way to go, so I’m not in the mood to be throwing compliments around,” he continued.
“I recognize that the guys have done extremely well and the results were flattering. But the important thing is they have a lot of growth in front of us. We have two years, but we need every minute of it.”