MANILA, Philippines -- Patrick Aquino didn't quite know what to say to the Gilas Pilipinas Women after they suffered a third consecutive beating in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup earlier this month in Amman, Jordan.
"Three devastating losses" was how Aquino would later describe it -- defeats of 143-52 to China, 120-56 to Australia, and 93-52 to Chinese Taipei that put the Filipinas at the bottom of Group B.
"It was really hard," Aquino admitted candidly, on the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum where he looked back on their campaign. "Even me, talagang na-down ako."
"Sabi ko sa mga coaching staff, I really don't know what to say anymore, ano bang pwede nating sabihin sa mga bata?" he said.
The odds were stacked against the Gilas Pilipinas Women right from the jump, in large part because of the COVID-19 pandemic that continues to adversely affect the conduct of sports in the country.
Aquino called up the core of the women's team that won the gold medal in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games -- a breakthrough that they had hoped to build on only for the global health crisis to get in the way.
But they didn't have Jack Animam, who is now a pro in Serbia, and Fil-Am Kelli Hayes, who opted out due to the pandemic.
Most of the players have not played competitive basketball in well over a year, not since March 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the leagues in the country. They also had just over a month to shake off the rust, re-learn the system, and integrate four rookies into the fold.
It was thus not entirely surprising to see the Gilas Women struggle against the Asian powerhouses. Aquino pointed out that in complete contrast to them, the Australian and Chinese teams were coming off stints in the Tokyo Olympics.
"Medyo mataas pa 'yung morale nila," he said.
"It was a shock. We're obviously going into it, preparing that all of these players were the best of the best," said Camille Clarin, one of the team's four rookies. "But it doesn't really hit you until you're actually matched up against them, guarding girls who are almost double your height."
'We have to win'
Aquino would have understood if his players were discouraged after losing their first three games by an average of 65 points per outing, and struggling to execute what they had learned. Afril Bernardino, their do-it-all veteran, put up a double-double of 24 points and 14 rebounds against Chinese Taipei but still couldn't get the team over the hump.
The coach is thus grateful that the players refused to get down on themselves despite their defeats.
"With the players, we just said na forget about it," said Aquino. "Just think about what we experienced with them, and then let's play 'yung all-out game natin. Let's try to compete pa rin to our very best."
Everything fell into place in their last game against India, which also lost all three of its games in the group phase. The Gilas Women defeated India, 92-78 when they played in 2019, but there was no assurance that they would get the same result this time around.
Indeed, the Gilas Women needed the "Splash Sisters" -- Khate Castillo and Janine Pontejos -- to play their best games of the tournament just to escape with a 74-70 win.
Pontejos kept the Philippines in the game in the first half, and Castillo waxed hot in the second to put them in control. Both of them finished with 22 points, while Bernardino put up nine points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks, and four steals in another superwoman effort.
"Nakasulat doon sa board (namin) -- win," Aquino recalled of their last game. "Win lang. We have to win."
"And fortunately, nag-step up, lalong lalo na si Janine, who stepped up well in the first half, then nag-follow pa si Khate Castillo. And then, steady naman si Afril, and also with the new one here Camille Clarin, who was really steady also," he added.
"I was so proud of the girls."
Staying in Division A
The victory over India was crucial as it allowed the Gilas Women to stay in Division A of FIBA Asia rather than be relegated to Division B.
For Aquino, it's a boost in confidence for himself and his team, that they can continue to play at a high level despite having to stop for over a year because of the pandemic.
"You play basketball in a certain level. You wanna go to that certain level all the time. And we are in that level already," stressed Aquino, the architect of National University's dynasty in UAAP women's basketball.
"Mahirap naman 'yung bababa ka ulit, para kang kunyari nasa high school tournament, bababa ka ng elementary," he pointed out.
And despite their struggles against the powerhouses of the continent, Aquino feels that his players have proven they deserve to stay in Division A.
"I think, with what the players did in that tournament, I'm just proud, again, to say na, you know, we deserve to be in that level," he said.
This doesn't mean that the Philippines can be immediately competitive with the likes of Japan, China, and Australia -- the three teams that reached the podium in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup. Aquino will be the first to say that they are not yet on the same level as "all those big countries."
But by staying in Division A, the Gilas Women have given themselves a better chance of one day reaching that level.
"In time, sabi ko nga sa 'yo, 'pag lagi mo sila nakakalaban, mas malapit ka na lagi sa kanila eh, 'yung lumalapit ka na. 'Yun ang pinaka-importante doon, na magstay ka sa Level A," he said.
Already, Aquino feels that they are learning and improving. He saw how Japan won the tournament despite not having the same size and experience that China and Australia did: Japan had an average height of 5-foot-10 and their two biggest players stood at 6-foot-1.
China, meanwhile, had an average height of 6-foot-1 and featured a 6-foot-9 center in Xu Han. The Australians had a 6-foot-5 center in Lauren Scherf, and a WNBA veteran in Sami Whitcomb of the New York Liberty.
"I know everybody's saying kailangan natin ng height. You know, sabi ko nga, Japan is not a very tall team, but very disciplined. Disiplinado sobra and 'yung work ethic nila talagang sobrang makikita mo eh," he observed.
"And the system was really fit to that team. You cannot bring that system to China or to Australia, but only for Japan," he added.
"I'm learning, too," Aquino stressed. "Every game na nakikita ko, napapanood ko 'yung mga ganiyang team, nagle-learn talaga. Natututo po ako. So alam ko marami pa tayong pagkukulang, but in time, we can also do those things."
"Just give us a little bit more time."