MANILA -- Khate Castillo woke up at 6:30 in the morning on Thursday, prepared to face a long day.
The Gilas Pilipinas Women sharpshooter and her teammates were scheduled to share the PhilSports Arena with the men's team for a joint practice -- the first time it has ever happened since the program's alignment in 2015.
The Las Piñas native met with Janine Pontejos in Taguig City so they can ride the same cab to their regular practice facility in Quezon City and train for two hours.
When that prelude session at the Aero Gym finished at 12 noon, head coach Patrick Aquino gathered his players at centercourt.
He congratulated them for making it to 37th in the latest FIBA rankings and urged them to enjoy what was about to commence later in the day.
"We're super happy. We like to thank Coach Tim Cone for having this. Expectation namin is we're building a family now," Aquino said of Cone's invite.
It was the winningest PBA tactician's initiative for both seniors national teams to practice in unison, following a memorable dinner in Cambodia last May when the men's squad reclaimed the Southeast Asian gold medal.
"I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to Coach Tim personally but I really appreciate the invite because not a lot of people have done this for us and not a lot of people have pushed for the initiatives to join the men’s, aside from Coach Chot (Reyes)," forward Katrina Guytingco said.
Then head coach Chot Reyes and veteran Chris Ross asked Gilas Women to join them for dinner on the night they beat the host in the men's five-on-five gold medal match, paving the way for an extraordinary experience for the ladies.
"This is the second time to be together again, and it's fun. That's what families are for. Sama-sama," Aquino said.
Gilas Women members arrived 30 minutes before 4 p.m., as instructed by Aquino. Shortly after, Japeth Aguilar and Calvin Abueva were among the earliest from Gilas Men, before the rest of the roster appeared one by one.
Fans started to occupy the box seats inside the arena. Assistant coach Richard del Rosario addressed them briefly, then introduced Gilas Women one by one as they lined up together with Cone's players.
"Sobrang nakakatuwa, nakaka-overwhelm dahil nakikilala kami ulit, and si Coach Tim pa ang nagpakilala sa amin," Pontejos said.
Aquino already had an idea of the event's flow. Cone's men had their own three-hour practice in the morning, so he had just told Aquino to "do your thing, and we'll do our thing."
Players stretched together then proceeded with five-on-zero offensive sets. Later, a specific shooting drill saw five shooters each from the men's and women's sides occupy five spots beyond the arc.
Gilas Women players smiled when Cone approached their halfcourt to give out instructions. They were asked to make 20 triples and two free throws after, before moving to another spot.
While the players focused on making threes, assistant coach LA Tenorio visited the Gilas Women's side for a quick look.
He was immediately impressed with Pontejos, the 2018 FIBA 3x3 shoot-out champion, upon seeing her make a bunch of triples from top of the key. Tenorio pointed it out to both Cone and team manager Alfrancis Chua who were both beside him.
For the finale, Del Rosario asked four fans to join eight players, forming four teams of three for an impromptu "Shooting Stars" contest that mimicked the same side event from the league's all-star weekend. The participants had two minutes to make baskets from five spots on the floor.
Pontejos joined forces with Calvin Abueva, while Castillo partnered with Terrence Romeo. Abueva drained a halfcourt shot within 90 seconds to put his team in the driver's seat. Castillo, however, made her heave in less time, to win both the contest and the adulation of the audience.
Back at the Aero Gym earlier, Castillo almost made a halfcourt shot with her back turned against the hoop. Aquino told her to save it for later. Unsurprisingly, the shooting guard from De La Salle University did.
"Siyempre worth it (gumising maaga). Makikita mo ‘yung Gilas Men, tapos andito ‘yung mga fans. Sinusuportahan nila ‘yung men’s (team), pati na rin kami, so worth it talaga," Castillo said afterwards.
As the practice concluded, Chua asked spectators to come down to the court level and interact with Gilas for 15 minutes. As expected, many took photos with crowd favorites like Aguilar, Abueva, Romeo, Justin Brownlee, and June Mar Fajardo.
The women's team were not left behind either, signing jerseys, taking selfies, and obliging for video greetings.
"It was really nice to get the time to meet the fans and have everyone together in one place just so we can celebrate Gilas," Guytingco said.
More than the ecstatic feeling from a successful night, it was the sense of belongingness that mattered most for Gilas Women when they shared the court and were mentioned in the same breath as the men's squad.
"Masaya, kasi hindi kami naging others sa kanila. Sinama talaga nila kami sa circle nila. Nakakatuwa kasi ang daming pa-games, babae, lalaki, at sa fans," Castillo emphasized.
Gilas Women felt that evidently four months ago during their celebratory dinner in Cambodia.
"It was so much fun interacting with the guys. We all kind of came together, even the coaches and all the managers. Singing and dancing, we had a little conga line," Guytingco recalled.
SEA Games gold medalist Chris Newsome made it a point that for basketball to keep flourishing, it's not just the men's program that should be noticed.
"It’s amazing experience, especially for the women to get the exposure that they’re getting now, I think they deserve it," Newsome said.
Newsome's younger sister, Melissa, went to Ateneo de Manila University and also played several seasons with the Blue Eagles women's basketball program, where she was teammates with Guytingco.
"I think it’s important to understand that the amount of work they put in doesn’t go unnoticed. I think that’s important for all the kababayans out there to support them. This is what they do, and they don’t get the recognition that a lot of the guys get," the Meralco Bolts wing added.
The two teams and their officials ended the night by gathering at a nearby restaurant for dinner. "Sobrang sarap sa feeling. Sana maulit pa," Pontejos quipped, hopeful that it wouldn't be the last time they're doing such an activity together.
Even as both squads are in the middle of a busy stretch in preparation for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China later this month, Cone made sure not to forget about Gilas Women.
Through his gesture, the multi-titled mentor allowed them to experience what they deserve -- as part of one big Gilas family.
"It's just realizing we go to practice every day, we're by ourselves, and we have the tendency to think that it's just about us... It's all bigger than us," Cone said.
"Hopefully our guys realize that, get a feel for that (here). There's a purpose. Once they got here, they were really happy to be here and do it."