MANILA - Converge guard RK Ilagan received words of support from his coaches and opponents after the FiberXers' close loss to TNT on Sunday, but they offered little comfort for the young player.
Ilagan was very nearly the hero for Converge against the Tropang GIGA, as he drilled a clutch jumper with just 22.9 seconds left that put them up, 83-82. He had a chance to further pad the lead when he was fouled with 9.3 seconds to go, but Ilagan shockingly missed both charities.
They were only his third and fourth attempt from the line in the 2022-23 PBA Philippine Cup; he was 2-of-2 at the stripe in a season-opening loss to Rain or Shine. The misses were costly: TNT secured the rebound and put the ball in the hands of Jayson Castro, who zoomed to the other end of the court for the go-ahead layup.
The Tropang GIGA went on to win, 86-83, as Converge committed a turnover in the next possession that forced them to put TNT's J-Jay Alejandro at the line. Afterward, a dejected Ilagan was comforted by Castro, with the veteran offering some advice to the young guard.
"Na-hit niya 'yung big shot noong huli pero na-miss niya 'yung free throws. Sabi ko sa kanya, okay lang 'yan, part of the process," said Castro. "Para next time na mag-free throw ka, 'yun ang magiging inspiration mo."
"Tsaka, 'wag na 'wag kang mawawalan ng kumpiyansa, kasi ang ganda ng kumpiyansa ng bata," he added.
Castro told Ilagan to learn from the mistake, pointing out that he also made similar errors in his career.
"Doon siya maggo-grow, 'yung mga mistake na ganoon. Pero, for me, 'di naman mistake 'yun eh. Learning process 'yun," he said. "Siyempre as a veteran, nagawa ko rin 'yung mga mistake na ganun before, and doon ako natuto."
Converge coach Jeff Cariaso also told Ilagan to keep his head up, and stressed to the guard that they did not lose the game just on his missed free throws alone. The FiberXers had started off slow, falling behind by 11 points in the first quarter, and spent most of the game playing catch up.
They snatched the lead in the fourth period but could not hold on, with Castro hitting the biggest shots down the stretch to put the FiberXers away.
"He's really feeling bad about the free throws," Cariaso said of Ilagan. "I told him, there are plays throughout the whole game where we could have been better, that could have been a difference-maker."
"So us losing could have happened also because of what happened in the first quarter, second quarter," he added. "He's a strong kid, I know he's gonna bounce back from this. He's just feeling really bad right now."
Ilagan exited the Converge dugout with a towel over his head, and afterward struggled to explain how he felt about what happened in the closing seconds. He said that aside from Castro, Brian Heruela also comforted him, but it was clear that the player took the result of the game hard.
"Hindi ko ma-explain 'yung nararamdaman ko ngayon," he said. "Sobrang down lang."
"Ewan ko, 'di ko rin po masabi," he said, when asked why he thought he missed the crucial free throws. "Ewan ko kung ano nangyari."
Ilagan is taking a measure of comfort in knowing that his coaches trusted him with the crucial shot despite having had a poor game. The guard out of San Sebastian had missed his first five attempts from the field before sinking the pull-up jumper that very nearly won them the game.
He also takes it as even greater motivation, after what ultimately happened.
"Kailangan, masuklian ko pa ng kung ano dapat gawin. Kailangan, mas higitan ko pa," said Ilagan. "Kasi ayun nga, panget 'yung resulta ng nangyari ngayon."