MANILA, Philippines -- The young players of Gilas Pilipinas face their biggest challenge so far when they take on powerhouse Serbia in their first game in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade.
Head coach Tab Baldwin has acknowledged that it is a "very big step up in level" for Gilas, which is coming off an impressive performance in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers in Clark, Pampanga, recently.
There, the Philippines went 3-0 and claimed two victories over rivals South Korea. Their young players, none of whom have played in the PBA, gave a good account of themselves, playing with tremendous poise and showcasing the chemistry developed over weeks of training at the Inspire Sports Academy in Laguna.
But playing Serbia, ranked fifth in the world, will be a whole new challenge for Baldwin and his team.
"It's probably sort of advanced in terms of where our particular program is at. We are using a bunch of amateur, young players. We are not bringing the professionals out of the Philippine ranks," the coach said ahead of their game.
"We come in here excited, feeling good, but understanding that this is a very, very big step up in level for our basketball team. But we expect to compete, we expect to take a lot of lessons out of this," he added.
Game time is at 2:15 a.m. on Thursday morning, Manila time.
Serbia has already opened its FIBA OQT campaign, defeating the Dominican Republic, 94-76, early Wednesday. Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic put up 18 points and 10 rebounds in the victory.
The Dominican Republic trailed by just one point, 67-66, after three quarters but were outscored, 27-10, by the host nation in the payoff period.
The Philippines will not be at full strength when they play Serbia, as swingman Dwight Ramos is expected to miss the game due to a groin strain suffered during the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers. Forward Carl Tamayo (ankle) and naturalized center Ange Kouame (knee) are also dealing with their own injuries.
Nonetheless, Baldwin said they will grab the opportunity to test themselves against one of the best teams in the world.
"This is gonna be a possession by possession game. We're gonna be hanging in there on every possession to strive to be successful to get a stop, to strive to be successful to get a bucket or an offensive rebound and have a second chance at it," Baldwin said on "The Chasedown" last weekend.
"But it's gonna be a grind for 40 minutes, and we're gonna need every guy on the bench. In the end, who knows how games play out? They all have their own character once they start. But I'm sure that we will take many lessons from the game," he added.
The Philippines has previously played Serbia just once before -- in the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup, where they absorbed a huge 126-67 defeat.
After playing Serbia, Gilas Pilipinas will then face the Dominican Republic at 2:30 a.m. on Friday morning.
Only the winner of the OQT will claim a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.