Ange Kouame of Gilas Pilipinas battles Serbia's Boban Marjanovic for possession. Courtesy of FIBA
A youthful Gilas Pilipinas men’s side should be proud of their effort after standing toe to toe with Serbia on Wednesday. Courtesy of FIBA
MANILA, Philippines -- (UPDATED) Gilas Pilipinas made a gallant stand before succumbing to a bigger, more experienced Serbian team, 83-76, in its first game of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament at the Aleksandar Nikolic Hall in Belgrade, Serbia on Thursday.
The young Gilas players showed tremendous grit and remained within striking distance until the final minute of the game, when Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic took over to tow Serbia to victory.
This was Serbia's second consecutive victory of the qualifiers, having previously defeated the Dominican Republic, 94-76, in a Group A game on Wednesday morning.
Serbia, the fifth-ranked team in the world, is now assured of a place in the semifinals along with Italy and Puerto Rico. Senegal, the other team in Group B, withdrew before the start of the tournament.
"A lot of people will look at this as some sort of moral victory," Gilas Pilipinas coach Tab Baldwin said afterward. "I just don't believe in those. We had chances late, and we missed open looks."
"They were really good looks and would have put Serbia under even more pressure. But sometimes, with a young team and a developing team, the occasion can be bigger than we are. That's what the learning process is all about," he added.
"I was very proud today."
-- Marjanovic dominates --
Gilas Pilipinas was a massive underdog heading into the game, as they featured young players who have not played in the professional ranks. But they held their own against a powerhouse Serbian squad, even briefly taking the lead, 74-73, in the fourth quarter thanks to an RJ Abarrientos layup with 3:50 to go.
Marjanovic was simply unstoppable, however. He gave Serbia back the lead with a dunk off a Teodosic dime, 75-74, then added another layup with 2:19 to play to make it a three-point game. A Baltazar floater trimmed the deficit to one point, 77-76, but the Philippines blew their chances to take the lead when Baltazar and SJ Belangel missed open three-pointers in their next possession.
It was the towering Marjanovic who made them pay, scoring inside for a 79-76 lead with 63 seconds to go. Off a timeout, the Philippines got the ball to Belangel who zoomed into the paint, but agonizingly missed a layup that could have made it a one-point game. William Navarro also flubbed the follow-up before Serbia seized control of the ball.
Marjanovic would then proceed to ice the game on the other end, as he made a difficult jumper over Kouame to make it a five-point game, 81-76, with just 36 seconds to play.
Marjanovic finished with 25 points, making 12 of his 18 shots, along with 10 rebounds to lead Serbia. Ognjen Dobric added 16 points, and Milos Teodosic had 13 markers.
For the Philippines, Ange Kouame had 17 points, and Jordan Heading scored 13. Justine Baltazar and Kai Sotto had 10 points each.
"It was a great learning experience for us," said Kouame, who also had seven rebounds and three blocks. "It was tough, especially playing against players we have been idolizing for a long time. We are really proud of ourselves."
-- Quick start for Serbia --
The hosts got off to a quick start, leading 11-2 before the Philippines got their bearings. Behind the twin towers of Ange Kouame and Kai Sotto, Gilas pulled to within six points, 22-16, at the end of the opening frame.
Serbia threatened to blow the game open late in the second quarter, as Teodosic drilled a three-pointer that gave them a 15-point lead, 42-27, with over two minutes left. But Baltazar and Heading made their own outside shots, allowing the Philippines to bring the deficit to single digits, 42-33.
But it was still Serbia that entered the halftime break with momentum, thanks to Dobric's triple with three seconds to go that put them in control, 45-34.
Serbia raced to a 16-point lead in the third period, 56-40, with Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic having his way inside the paint. But the Philippines chipped away at the lead; RJ Abarrientos gave them a lift with a huge triple over Marjanovic, and Kouame scored six straight points to bring the lead to single digits, 61-53, with under three minutes left. A huge triple by Heading and a Sotto bucket put the Philippines within five, 67-62, entering the final period.
Gilas carried the momentum into the fourth quarter, with Carl Tamayo nailing a three-pointer and Mike Nieto converting a floater to knot the count at 67. It was a tight game from that point, but Marjanovic made the difference for Serbia in the endgame while the Philippines' offense fizzled out.
"We haven't played a team of that caliber and intelligence that Serbia plays with," Baldwin pointed out.
"Lot of work to do, but we need to put this game behind us, and get ready for the Dominican Republic," he stressed.
Gilas Pilipinas returns to action on Friday morning against the Dominican Republic, with the winner advancing to the semifinals of the Olympic qualifiers. Only the winner of the tournament will secure a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics.