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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE 2) - Gilas Pilipinas killed two birds with one stone on Saturday, as they ended years of heartbreak at the hands of nemesis South Korea, and at the same time, booked a berth in the FIBA World Cup next year in Spain.
Playing most of the game without injured naturalized player Marcus Douthit, Gilas Pilipinas showed immense heart and fighting spirit as they carved out a remarkable 86-79 victory in front of thousands of Filipino fans watching at the Mall of Asia Arena and the millions more who saw the game on television.
"Our motivation was very pure," said Gilas Pilipinas coach Chot Reyes, who became emotional post-game and even during the press conference. "We just wanted to get to the Finals, and make the Philippines proud."
Gilas Pilipinas did just that with their stirring victory against Korea, a team that had broken the hearts of Filipino basketball fans time and time again. This time, it was the Filipinos who had the last laugh as they weathered a late Korea charge to take the game, and with it, a berth in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
It will be the first time since 1973 that the Philippine national basketball team will participate the world stage.
Gilas, who made the Final Four after routing Kazakhstan on Friday, also booked a date with tournament favorites Iran in the championship game Sunday, and Reyes made it clear that he had not forgotten about it even as he relished the moment.
"We have achieved our goal, now our dream is at hand," he said. "Our objective is to win a medal, but our dream is to win it all. Now that the dream is at hand, we are gonna go all out."
"They will have to carry us out of that court tomorrow," he said emphatically.
It was a close game all throughout, especially in the opening period as neither squad could settle into a rhythm offensively. But Gilas' hopes received a blow when Douthit, already severely limited by a calf injury, left the game in the second period and did not return.
"Marcus has been carrying us for so long," said Reyes, "Now it's our turn to carry him, to have his back."
It was Marc Pingris who stepped up for Gilas in Douthit's absence. Known primarily as a defensive stopper, Pingris had his highest scoring game of the tournament, tallying 16 points while still grabbing 10 rebounds and limiting the South Korean big men.
Pingris, along with Ranidel De Ocampo, attended the post-game press conference and both succumbed to tears as they reflected on the enormity of their achievement.
"Puso lang talaga," Pingris said repeatedly, pointing out that the Gilas players did not receive big salaries for their participation in the national team.
"Para po sa bayan natin, puso lang talaga. Hindi po kami sineswelduhan ng malaki katulad ng sa PBA, pero sakripisyo lang talaga ito para sa bayan natin, kasi masarap maglaro. Magpapakamatay po talaga kami," said Pingris.
Korea, who routed Qatar to advance to the semifinals, entered the halftime break leading 39-36, and Gilas had only shot 41% in the first half as they struggled to find their stroke from the outside while also flubbing inside shots.
Pingris, who had 10 points, and Jason Castro, with eight, were the bright spots for the team in the first two quarters.
The tide turned in Gilas' favor in the first few minutes of the third period, as Castro lived up to his nickname - The Blur - and repeatedly blew by his bigger Korean defenders on the way to the basket.
Castro scored six consecutive points to start the third period, and Pingris tipped in a missed shot by Gabe Norwood, and Gilas all of a sudden had a 44-39 lead.
"They played an amazing game. We couldn't figure out a way to stop Castro," admitted Korea's Lee Seung-jun.
De Ocampo, LA Tenorio, and Japeth Aguilar soon joined the scoring barrage for Gilas, and their lead would have been bigger were it not for Korea's Kim Min-goo, who suddenly waxed hot from beyond the arc.
Kim had 11 points in the third period that allowed Korea to remain within striking distance even as Castro continued to attack them for inside points.
Gilas took a nine-point lead, 65-56, at the end of the third period, but Korea showed their class as they clawed all the way back in the fourth quarter, paving the way for a nervy finish.
After a lay-up by Pingris off a Castro feed made it 73-68, Kim sparked a 7-0 Korea run that allowed them to take a 75-73 lead with 3:41 to go.
A triple by Jimmy Alapag temporarily gave Gilas a 76-75 lead, only for Kim Tae-sool to snatch it back just moments later via a long jumper.
But it turned out to be Korea's last hurrah of the game. Even as the thousands of Filipino fans wondered if this was to be another heartbreaker for Gilas, the team showed remarkable composure in crunch time.
De Ocampo's hook gave Gilas a 78-77 lead that it would not relinquish, and then he drained a triple with 1:31 to go that made it 81-77. After two free throws by Yang Dong-geun allowed Korea to cut it into two points, Alapag rifled in a triple that proved to be the dagger.
Korea burned its last timeout, as an ecstatic MOA Arena crowd sang Queen's "We Will Rock You" all throughout the brief break in action. Gilas remained stalwart on defense in the final 54 seconds, and a Pingris basket with 20 seconds to go put the finishing touches on the famous victory.
"Up to now, I still don't know how we did it," Reyes marveled after the game. "We just kept fighting. We were not going to give up. They will have to carry us out of that court."
GILAS PILIPINAS 86 - Castro 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 Mingoo 27, Yang 11, Kim Joo-sung 11, Lee SJ 10, Lee J 10, Cho 6, Kim Sunhyung 2, Yoon 0, Kim Jongkyu 0
Quarter-scoring: 15-19, 36-39, 65-56, 86-79