Afril Bernardino and Andrea Tongco go back a long way.
The two played collegiate basketball together for National University. Both are also veteran internationalists who played key roles for Gilas Pilipinas Women’s which recently retained its spot in Division A of the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup.
Though Bernardino and Tongco have been fixtures in the national team for more than half a decade, the journey they went through in the FIBA Women’s Asia Cup held in Amman, Jordan, was unlike anything they had experienced in their careers.
“Yung huling competitive na laro namin ay yung 2019 SEA Games pa,” shared Tongco as she recounted the first major hurdle they had to overcome. “Yung katawan namin, parang hindi na sanay sa competitive training kasi puro individual trainings lang ginagawa namin noong pandemic.”
Going into the bubble training in Lipa, Batangas, Bernardino revealed there was one thought that occupied her mind: “Sana walang magpositive sa amin.” She echoed Tongco’s revelation saying, “Hindi na kami sanay sa banggaan.
“Ang nagtutulak lang sa amin ay yung magkakaroon kami ng chance na makapaglaro ulit.”
Gilas Women’s have been in Division A, the highest level of competition in FIBA Asia, since 2017.
Bernardino and Tongco were both 19 years and already part of the 2015 national squad that earned for the country a promotion to Division A in 2015 after years of toiling in the lower tier Division B. Hence, the two of them were fully aware of the value of staying in Division A.
“Pinakita naman po namin sa tournament na lalaban kami kahit na yung mga kalaban namin mga kagagaling lang ng Olympics,” bared Bernardino. The former three-time UAAP MVP was, hands down, the top performer of Gilas, as she led the squad in points with an average of 14.5 per game, rebounds with 8.8 boards, and assists with 3.3 dimes. Bernardino was also the team’s leading scorer in the 2019 edition of the FIBA Asia Cup.
Their participation in this year’s FIBA Asia Cup also brought with it extensive TV coverage that the women’s squad was not given in previous competitions that they joined.
It is a milestone that is not lost on Tongco who described how much the media mileage meant to the team, “Thankful po kami na parang nare-recognize kami at pinalabas ng live ang mga laro namin noong FIBA. Yung sa SEA Games kasi, given na yon since tayo ang hosts.
“Ang sarap sa feeling na nabibigyan ng pansin ang women’s basketball.”
The senior team featuring Bernardino, Clare Castro, Janine Pontejos, and Jack Animam placed eighth in the FIBA Asia 3×3. They put on a historic performance by capturing two gold medals, one for 5 on 5 and another for 3×3, in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. The depth of the program was further highlighted when Gilas squads copped eighth place in the FIBA 3×3 Under-18 World Cup and bagged a bronze in the FIBA Asia Under-18 3×3.
Then the pandemic happened, a regrettable, unforeseen circumstance that has stalled the development of women’s basketball in the country. Bernardino, however, refuses to sulk and chooses instead to focus on the positive. She said, “Nakakapanghinayang, pero nakikita naman naming ang program para sa women’s basketball.
“Nagkaroon na tayo ng pro league, yung WNBL. So may napupuntahan din naman lahat ng mga paghihirap namin para sa women’s basketball.”
Bernardino suited up in the Malaysia Women’s Basketball League (MWBL) in 2018 for the Hatchers Valkyrie.
She led her squad to the semifinals where she dropped 22 points in a losing effort to the MS Matrix which featured Gilas playmaker Chack Cabinbin and the first Filipina to play as an import in Malaysia, Gilas legend Allana Lim.
Tongco also saw action in 2018 in the MWBL for the UiTM Lion’s Selection.
She was tops in the league in assists in the preliminary round. But more than her sojourn overseas, Tongco wants her exploits to serve as an inspiration for young female ballers who come from the province.
Tongco was 15 years old when she moved from Cagayan de Oro to Manila to continue on her dream to pursue basketball. It was the start of a decades-long quest to become the best player she could be. “Gusto ko sabihin sa mga batang babae na huwag sila matakot to take risks for their dreams,” she said. “Noong umpisa, nalulungkot ako, naiiyak, na parang gusto ko na umuwi. Pero you have to love the game.
“Iniisip ko blessed ako kasi nakapagaral ako through basketball, tapos nakakatulong ako sa family ko.”
Bernardino and Tongco are hopeful that Gilas Women and the WBNL will be able to sustain the gains they have achieved for women’s basketball.
Their fervent wish is that in the Philippines where the game’s popularity is unparalleled, people will also give women’s basketball the attention, support, and following it has been longing for and it so rightfully deserves.