The Gilas Pilipinas Women are increasingly becoming competitive at the continental level, eight years after they were promoted to the top level of basketball in FIBA Asia.
Global powerhouses like Australia and Japan are still out of the Philippines' reach, but the Gilas Women showed during the FIBA Women's Asia Cup 2023 that they are catching up with other contenders.
"I think the gaps are closing for us," Philippines head coach Patrick Aquino said on Saturday, after the Gilas Women concluded their campaign in Sydney with another competitive defeat -- just falling short against South Korea, 80-71, in the classification phase.
They finished sixth overall in Sydney, their highest ever ranking since the Gilas Women were promoted to Division A in 2015.
The tournament did not start off well as they were clobbered by Australia, 105-34, to open their campaign in Group B.
But they briefly kept in step with erstwhile defending champion Japan before succumbing to a 95-57 loss, then used the momentum from that game to stun Chinese-Taipei, 92-81. It was the Philippines' first win in the group phase since their promotion, and ensured that they will stay in Division A.
Brimming with confidence, the Gilas Women proceeded to give New Zealand -- ranked 29th in the world -- a scare before absorbing an 83-78 loss. They nearly completed a comeback from a double-digit deficit against South Korea in their final game but ran out of steam in the end game.
"Again, we fell short, but I'm still proud of the girls. They never gave up," said Aquino. "I hope that we continue doing this in the future, when we go back. It's a great energy for us, in preparing for the next ones."
Aquino, the architect of the Gilas Pilipinas Women's program, emphasized that heading into the 2023 tournament, their mindset was to compete, and not just to participate. The Gilas Women had just escaped relegation in the 2017, 2019, and 2021 editions of the FIBA Women's Asia Cup, but this time around they were on a mission to show that they belonged at the top level.
"It's about confidence and competing. That's the term I always use with the girls. We came here to compete, not we came here to just play the relegation games," the coach said.
"I think the girls were prepared enough to have that confidence, and have that competing attitude, and we hope that the energy will not just be this year but in the future," he added.
The Gilas Women's confidence was bolstered by the addition of Filipino-American guard Vanessa de Jesus, who acquired her Philippine passport before the tournament. The Duke University guard averaged 12.8 points, 3.2 assists, and 1.8 rebounds per game; in their breakthrough win against Chinese-Taipei, she put up 25 points while taking over in crunch time.
Veterans such as Afril Bernardino (13.0 points, 7.6 rebounds per game) and Jack Animam (10.0 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) were as reliable as ever, while Aquino also developed up-and-coming stars such as Ateneo de Manila University's Jhazmin Joson and National University's Angel Surada.
Joson, who had 15 points against New Zealand, was pleased with the result of her first foray in a FIBA tournament with the Gilas Women.
"It's my first time, actually, to play in FIBA, so that's a lot of fun. But I've heard a lot of things from the past, that you know, before, we were just getting blown out by so much," said the UAAP Season 85 Mythical Team member.
"But now, we're right there with them. So I think it will be good competition in the next few years."
China emerged as champions of the tournament after dethroning Japan in a nail-biting final, while Australia surged past New Zealand to claim bronze. All four teams have sealed their spots in the FIBA Olympic qualifying tournament for the Paris Summer Games.