MANILA, Philippines -- Gilas Pilipinas came agonizingly close to stunning powerhouse Serbia in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, before faltering down the stretch and falling, 83-76.
It still goes down in the record books as a defeat, but Filipino basketball fans were in a celebratory mood after watching the game early Thursday morning. Serbia was the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament, and the last time they played the Philippines, they had won by 59 points, 126-67, in the FIBA World Cup.
This time around, a youthful Gilas team bannered by players with no PBA experience gave Serbia all it could handle. The Philippines even led briefly in the fourth quarter, 74-73, before Boban Marjanovic took over for the home team.
"A lot of people will look at this as some sort of moral victory," Gilas coach Tab Baldwin acknowledged afterward.
"You know, I've been in this game for such a long time, I just don't believe in those," he added.
Baldwin instead rued the chances that Gilas let slip, noting that they "missed good open looks" in the fourth quarter.
The Philippines was down by just one point, 77-76, with 2:06 to go but could not buy a basket the rest of the way. Justine Baltazar and SJ Belangel both misfired from beyond the arc, and Belangel also came up short on a layup that could have made it a one-point game in the final minute.
In all, Gilas missed their last five attempts from the field.
"I think Ange missed a couple, SJ missed one, and Justine Baltazar, he missed one as well. They were really good looks, and they would have put Serbia under even more pressure than they were under late in the game," Baldwin said.
But the veteran mentor also conceded that those errors were understandable, given the youth of the team and the stage that they were in.
"Sometimes, particularly with a young team and a developing team, the occasion can be a bit bigger than what we are, but that's what the learning process is all about," Baldwin explained.
"So I was very proud of the effort today. I wanna play better than we played, and I know that we can play better. And we will play better," he added.
"But certainly the flow of the game was very competitive, and we put in a great effort. Apart from a little bit of composure late, I thought we answered most of the questions that were asked of us by Serbia today."
The Gilas players were still all smiles after the loss; center Ange Kouame said afterward that they are "really proud" of how they performed against a team that is ranked fifth in the world.
But they have little time to dwell on their game against Serbia as they face a quick turnaround. Gilas plays again on early Friday morning, this time against the Dominican Republic.
It will be a crucial contest, with the winner advancing to the semifinals of the FIBA Olympic qualifiers.
"(We have) a lot of work to do, but we need to put this game behind us and get ready for Dominican (Republic) now," Baldwin said.