MANILA, Philippines -- After their historic triumph in 2019, the Gilas Pilipinas Women are more determined than ever to prove that they are the best in the region.
Having already fulfilled their initial goal of staying in Division A in FIBA Asia, the Gilas Women are now turning their attention to the Southeast Asian Games, which is tentatively set for May 2022 in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Originally scheduled for November 21 to December 2 this year, the biennial event had to be postponed to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The delay in their title defense has not dampened the excitement of the Gilas Women, however.
"Ako, siyempre excited ako," said sharpshooter Janine Pontejos, who won two golds in the 2019 SEA Games in Manila -- one in 3x3 and one in the fullcourt version of the game.
"Pinaghirapan namin 'yun noong last SEA Games," she pointed out. "So kailangan, ma-defend talaga namin 'yun."
The Gilas Women ended many years of heartbreak on their homecourt at the Mall of Asia Arena in 2019, with a 91-71 rout of Thailand in their last game securing their victory. Pontejos was superb in the game, firing 16 points, including three three-pointers.
At the time, Camille Clarin was still a rookie for National University (NU) and had yet to receive a national team call-up. She has since played for the Gilas Women in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup, and is hopeful that her performance in Jordan merits inclusion in the SEA Games team.
"I would definitely love to be a part of that SEA Games" team, said Clarin, who played for the Lady Bulldogs in UAAP Season 82 before her sophomore season was wiped out by the pandemic.
"Obviously the run (in 2019) was iconic," she added. "I actually watched every single game. Even though I was still at NU, I made it to MOA every time to watch them play, because it was just a great run."
"I would definitely love to be a part of it. We have a great program going. We have good momentum coming from this tournament, so hopefully we can pick it up and bring it into the SEA Games."
But to defend their gold medal, the Gilas Women will need plenty of preparation, said coach Patrick Aquino. In 2019, they competed in the FIBA women's Olympic pre-qualifying tournament in New Zealand -- a stint that helped them prepare for the SEA Games even if they suffered heavy losses in the games.
"I'm hoping that by November, that would be a good start for us (in training)," said Aquino. "Kasi pagdating ng December, marami na naman tayong mga breaks, may Christmas break and everything."
He also hopes to welcome some new faces into the SEA Games team, including young guard Ella Fajardo who made her senior team debut in the FIBA Women's Asia Cup, and former California State University, Sacramento standout Gabi Bade, who is now playing as a professional in Cyprus. Bade is the daughter of former PBA player Chris Bade and has previously suited up for the Philippines in the 2019 Jones Cup.
Filipino-American forward Mai-Loni Henson, who can play for Gilas as a naturalized player, is also expected to suit up in the SEA Games.
"We're gonna move forward and look forward," said Aquino.
Given the restrictions caused by the pandemic, it is likely that the Gilas Women will have to prepare in a bubble training camp, similar to what they did for the FIBA Women's Asia Cup.
It's something the players are ready to do.
"We've done it once, so I think we're ready to do it again," said Clarin.
"Sa akin, reading-ready po, basta para sa bayan natin. Anytime," added Pontejos.