A supporter of Philippines holds his country's flag during the 2014 FIBA World basketball championships Group B match vs Croatia at the Palacio Municipal de Deportes in Sevilla. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou, Agence France-Presse
MANILA -- Despite losing to Croatia on the first day of the World Cup in Spain, the basketball-crazy Philippines on Sunday still celebrated its team's strong showing after forcing the Balkan powerhouse into overtime.
Croatia, which boasts two NBA players, narrowly defeated the Philippines 81-78 in a Group B match in Seville.
Yet Philippine President Benigno Aquino III hailed the achievement with his spokesman Herminio Coloma, saying "the president joins the whole nation in sending our congratulations for showing the skill and the determination to our players."
"In the face of stiff challenge, the Philippines fought to the last and won the admiration of the world in basketball," he added.
While the national team, Gilas Pilipinas, is not expected to win the 2014 FIBA World Cup championship, the country is eagerly hoping to show it can stand with the world's best in Spain.
The Philippine Star broadsheet's main headline on Sunday said "Gutsy Gilas pushes Croatia to the limit," with the news overshadowing crises including the standoff between Filipino UN peacekeepers and Syrian rebels in the Golan Heights.
Even the Philippine team's head coach, Chot Reyes, said in remarks aired by ABS-CBN television Sunday that "I am mighty proud of the effort of our guys."
"We weren't even suppose to be close anywhere to Croatia (which is) such a superpower... but that's how our team is. We don't look too tall at times. We don't look like we are able to play the game," but can still pull off surprises, he said.
The Croatians held a clear height advantage over their Southeast Asian opponents, most of whom are only around six-feet tall -- relatively short for basketball players.
The presence of US-born Andray Blatche, a 6-foot-11 Brooklyn Nets center helped the Philippine team's showing as he led the game in scoring with 28 points and 12 rebounds.
Blatche was granted Filipino citizenship under a special law that was signed and rushed through by President Aquino in June to boost local chances ahead of this year's FIBA World Cup.
Filipinos were not the only ones taken by the local team's performance.
On basketball website Liberty Ballers, one commenter remarked, "I became a fan of the Philippines while watching the game. It was hard not to: with a bunch of guys the size of J.J. Barea (a 6.0-foot NBA player) surrounding Blatche, launching threes and trying really hard with a very passionate crowd entirely in their favor."
The Philippine team are due to face Greece on Sunday and Argentina on Monday.
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