(UPDATED) KUALA LUMPUR — In a spectacular display of heart, the Philippine women's basketball team kept its drive for a maiden Southeast Asian Games gold medal alive on Wednesday night here.
Buoyed by a loud contingent of Filipino fans at the MABA Stadium, Perlas Pilipinas completed a stunning comeback from a 12-point fourth-quarter deficit to slip past Thailand, 67-65, and improve its record to 3-1 in the single round-robin tournament wherein the team with the best record gets the gold.
It was an emotional victory for the Filipinas, who were mired in a do-or-die situation against Thailand, a team that had beaten them two years ago in the SEA Games in Singapore.
A loss to the Thais would have virtually spelled the end of Perlas Pilipinas' campaign for a first-ever women's basketball gold medal.
"It was a comeback game, and we played with adversity," a visibly emotional coach Patrick Aquino told ABS-CBN News exclusively after their crucial victory. "If you fail to win this game, it's go home already. So napaka-sarap sa feeling."
"I'm just so proud to see those girls work hard for their win," he added.
Perlas Pilipinas trailed 61-51 heading into the final quarter, and was dealt a further blow when dynamic guard Afril Bernardino fouled out with still 7:44 left to play.
A baseline jumper by Thailand's Supira Klanbut made it a 12-point game, 65-53, with just six minutes left, and all seemed lost for the Philippines as it could not find the bottom of the net for the next two minutes.
But two free throws by Aracelie Abaca, who came into the game after Bernardino fouled out, spurred Perlas into action. Aquino sent in diminutive guards France Cabinbin and Janine Pontejos to harass the taller Thais, and they responded by anchoring a blistering 12-0 run.
It was a Cabinbin steal that led to Allana Lim's bucket to make it a two-point game, 65-63, with 1:54 left, and Perlas didn't give Thailand an opportunity to score in its next possession as Pontejos poached the inbound pass for the tying bucket.
A well-executed play by the Thais allowed them to go up 67-65 with 1:38 left, with Naruemol Banmoo scoring on an open bucket. On the other end, however, Analyn Almazan drew a foul and coolly drained a couple of free throws to tie the game for the sixth and last time.
Perlas forced Banmoo into an ill-advised jumper in their next possession and, off a timeout, Cabinbin was able to attack at the right time, sucking in a couple of defenders before dropping off a pass to the lurking Lim. The former Far Eastern University standout came through for Perlas, laying in the go-ahead bucket with just 11.4 seconds left.
"I just think that every time I get the ball, I have to shoot it," said Lim, who finished with 16 points despite suffering an ankle sprain earlier in the contest.
Thailand's final attempt barely drew iron, and they had to watch in shock as the Philippines stole what seemed to be a comfortable victory for them.
"It was one of the best games I've ever seen," said Aquino, who cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines during the second period, when Thailand's lead ballooned to 15 points, 45-30, and again in the fourth period after a series of questionable calls from the referee.
But Aquino was also the first to celebrate when the final buzzer sounded, and repeatedly expressed his pride in his players for their great fighting spirit.
"They didn't give up," he said. "We were down by 10, 12, but . . . they didn't give up, and I was so proud of them. Lahat sila — from the bench player to the top player. Lahat sila, nagpapasalamat ako."
Pontejos scored 14 points, while Analyn Almazan added 13 points and 13 boards for Perlas Pilipinas. Bernardino had 9 points and 10 boards before fouling out on what she saw as yet another dubious call from the officials.
Perlas actually led 18-13 at the end of the first quarter, but collapsed in the second wherein the Filipinas were outscored 32-12 by Thailand. They gave a preview of their fourth-quarter comeback through a 13-2 run in the third to come to within four, 47-43, before Thailand pulled away once more.
There was no stopping them in the fourth quarter, however.
But the Perlas players themselves knew that their job is not yet done. They have another do-or-die game on Thursday morning against Malaysia, and are already bracing for a stiff challenge from the home team — and the defending SEA Games gold medalists.
"Tuloy-tuloy lang," said Lim. "Tuloy-tuloy lang."
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