MANILA, Philippines -- The repeated postponements of the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers worked in the Philippines' favor as the youthful Gilas Pilipinas squad got more time to prepare for the competition.
Gilas was originally scheduled to play the third and final window of the qualifiers in February, with the Philippines as the host of Group A games. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the national federation to withdraw as hosts, however, as the Philippines imposed a strict travel ban.
The games were moved to Qatar, but it, too, had to withdraw from hosting duties due to the pandemic. It wasn't until June that the qualifiers finally took place, in a bubble in Clark, Pampanga.
Amid the scheduling woes, the Philippine national team was not idle. They held several camps at the Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna, including a six-week stretch of training.
"One of the keys … is the preparation that we did," said Mike Nieto, one of the leaders of the national team.
Nieto pointed out that they were already in camp at Inspire in January, with several PBA players including Kiefer Ravena, CJ Perez, and Roger Pogoy in the fold. They briefly broke camp when NCR Plus was placed under enhanced community quarantine, but got permission to start training again in late April.
"Nagkaroon ng bubble for six weeks -- that was the longest," Nieto noted. "And then, nagkaroon ulit ng bubble with the college players ta's nagtanggal, ta's bubble ulit, ta's bubble ulit."
The long period of preparation paid dividends in the FIBA Asia Cup 2021 qualifiers, where they registered a 3-0 sweep -- including two victories over rivals South Korea.
Gilas carried the momentum into the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Belgrade, Serbia. They memorably hung tough against the host nation before absorbing a slim 83-76 loss against the fifth-ranked team in the world. It was only in their last game against the Dominican Republic that Gilas lost steam, taking a 94-67 defeat.
"If you've been under Coach Tab (Baldwin) for a long time talaga, importante talaga kay Coach Tab is preparation," said Nieto.
"No matter what na sabihin niya, preparation talaga ang naging key namin, na kaya kami naging successful nung Ateneo, and at the same time, kaya kami nanalo against Korea and Indonesia nung Asia Cup Qualifiers kasi sobrang prepared kami," he added.
Nieto shared that Baldwin's mantra to them was simple: "Kailangan, 'pag pupunta ka ng giyera, may armas. Hindi pwedeng pupunta ka ng giyera na wala kang dalang gamit kasi mayayari ka."
The national team players are still currently in quarantine after their stint in the FIBA OQT, and will have a few days to relax and recover with their families upon completing the protocol.
But they are set to return to work soon, this time to prepare for the FIBA Asia Cup that will take place next month in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Nieto said they are raring to go back to training and build on what they have already accomplished in the past two FIBA events.
"Si Coach Tab, gusto niya ng hard work," Nieto also said. "At least nabigay naman namin sa kanya 'yung oras na ginusto niya. Ang tagal talaga namin nag-hirap. Pero at least ngayon, nag-benefit naman 'yung team, as you guys saw noong dalawang liga."