MANILA - (2nd UPDATE) Gilas Pilipinas overcame their first hurdle as they outfought a stubborn Saudi Arabia squad, 78-66, to begin their campaign in the 27th FIBA Asia Men's Championship at the Mall of Asia Arena Thursday night.
It was a balanced effort as every Gilas player scored at least two points, led by Larry Fonacier and LA Tenorio who both fired 12 markers.
But it was far from a straightforward victory for Gilas as they were tested by the Saudi Arabians, the one team that they were not familiar with in the tournament.
"We know all these teams pretty well... the one we haven't seen at all was Saudi Arabia," said national team head coach Chot Reyes.
"In the back of my mind, I expected that we would have a difficult time tonight, and we're glad that this first game is behind us," added Reyes.
Gilas raced to a 10-3 start behind back-to-back triples from Tenorio and Jeff Chan, but Saudi Arabia took a surprising 16-14 lead after the opening frame thanks to the efforts of Aymam Almuwallad and Mohammed Almarwani.
Sparked by Jason Castro, Gilas regained control of the contest in the second period, and entered the halftime break leading 35-28.
Saudi Arabia threatened anew in the third period, coming as close as three points, 32-35, as Gilas did not score in the first 3:37 of the frame.
But Marcus Douthit, who missed all of his five field goals in the first half, suddenly came alive, leading Gilas in a 9-0 blast that allowed them to take a double-digit lead, 44-32.
Despite Douthit's efforts, Marc Pingris' hustle and Tenorio's outside shooting, Saudi Arabia was able to stay within striking distance through their free throw shooting.
After Gilas took their biggest lead of the game, 66-50, following a jumper from Gary David, Saudi Arabia drilled three consecutive three-pointers to threaten anew. To complicate matters, Douthit was called for a personal foul and then a technical foul, allowing Saudi Arabia to once again cut into the lead via the charity stripe.
After freebies from Nassir Abo Jalas and Almarwani, the Saudi Arabians were down just eight points, 62-70, with still 2:20 to go in the ball game.
But Gabe Norwood scored on the break, and Fonacier drained another three-pointer, to keep Saudi at bay for the rest of the game.
"It's never supposed to be easy, for anyone who thought that we would breeze past Saudi Arabia," Fonacier pointed out. "We played a quality team tonight, and we expect the same thing moving forward, for our next games."
Reyes, who is celebrating his 50th birthday, said that Saudi Arabia's performance proved "that they deserved to be in this tournament."
Reyes also noted that they were trying to keep the players fresh for tomorrow's game against a taller, tougher Jordan squad.
"We're glad that we were able to come out of this game with a victory, but the real battle is tomorrow," he said.
Almuwallad led all scorers with 18 points for Saudi Arabia, while Almarwani finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds despite hurting his knee in the first half.
After shooting only 38% in the first half, Gilas finished the game shooting 42% from the floor. They controlled the boards, 49-38, and dished out 17 assists to only 11 for Saudi Arabia.
But Saudi Arabia also attempted 38 free throws, making 25 of them, as Gilas Pilipinas was called for 30 fouls.
Gilas Pilipinas is bracketed in Group A of the tournament with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Chinese-Taipei.
At stake in the tournament are three berths to the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
GILAS PILIPINAS: 78 - Tenorio 12, Fonacier 12, Douthit 10, De Ocampo 9, Pingris 8, Chan 6, Castro 6, Alapag 5, David 4, Norwood 2, Fajardo 2, Aguilar 2
SAUDI ARABIA: 66 - Almuwallad A. 18, Almarwani Mohammed 12, Alhwsawi 11, Abo Jalas 9, Almarwani Mathna 8, Almuwallad M. 4, Kabe 2, Belal 2, Alsager 0, Abujabal 0, Almuhanna 0
Quarter-scoring: 14-16, 35-28, 57-46, 78-66
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