MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) — The Philippine women's basketball team remained in the hunt for the gold medal in the 30th Southeast Asian Games after a thrilling 81-75 triumph over Malaysia, at Mall of Asia Arena on Sunday night.
The Gilas Pilipinas Women lost all of a 12-point lead in the third quarter, but big shots by Khate Castillo and clutch plays by veterans Afril Bernardino and Janine Pontejos propelled them to their second win in the competition.
They tied Thailand with their 2-0 slate, and the two squads will compete for the gold medal on Tuesday at the same venue. The Gilas Pilipinas Women are searching for their first ever gold medal in the SEA Games.
Bernardino, the three-time UAAP Most Valuable Player from National University, put up a stunning line of 18 points, 19 rebounds, 3 blocks, 3 assists, and a steal in 31 minutes of action. Pontejos bucked a poor shooting night to finish with 10 points, and Jack Animam tallied 14 points and 11 rebounds.
"Wow, what a game," said head coach Pat Aquino afterward. "We were down by 7 in the last 5 minutes. They never gave up. I'm so proud of them, diving for that ball, and talagang they found a way to really win that game."
The Gilas Women, brimming with momentum from their 63-56 win over Indonesia last Thursday, appeared as though they were on their way to a comfortable win after leading by as many as 12 points, 59-47, in the third quarter.
Kelli Hayes recovered from a shaky start to knock down two 3-pointers, and Animam muscled her way inside the paint to give the Philippines its biggest lead with more than five minutes to play.
Malaysia, however, refused to give up. The visitors uncorked 9 straight points to get back in the game, and were down by just one point 64-63 entering the payoff period. The two-time SEA Games gold medalists looked as though they were about to break the Filipinas' hearts when they took a 74-68 lead with more than five minutes left off a Eugene Ting bucket.
But Castillo responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game at 74-all with 3:46 to go, and from there the Filipinas' non-stop hustle won them the game. Danica Jose wrestled for a rebound and drew a foul, and her split at the line with 3:01 left put the Philippines ahead for good, 75-74.
Pontejos did not give up after missing a 3-pointer with more than a minute left, and came up with the loose ball before getting fouled by Pei Jie Tan. She coolly knocked down two shots, then converted a runner with 51 seconds to go for a 79-74 advantage.
The Filipinas' defense forced Malaysia into hurried shots, and Bernardino iced the game at the free-throw line to complete a terrific performance.
"(I told them to) calm down," Aquino said. "Gigil na naman tayo. I mean, you know this is basketball. There will be runs, little runs, like we had a little run"
"I said just calm down, do your plays and play defense. As far as I'm concerned, 'yun lang. 'Yun lang naman," he added.
With the win, the Filipinas set up a gold medal game against Thailand on Tuesday. The Thais also have a 2-0 record, powered by WNBA player Tiffany Bias.
"We still have one more game, and sana, dire-diretso na ito," said Aquino, who is looking to guide the Gilas Women to the podium for the first time since he took over as coach in 2015.
The last time the Philippine women's team won a medal in the SEA Games was in 2013, when a squad bannered by Cassy Tioseco and Ewon Arayi settled for the silver behind Thailand.
PHILIPPINES 81 -- Bernardino 18, Animam 14, Castillo 11, Pontejos 10, Cabinbin 8, Hayes 7, Tongco 5, Jose 3, Nabalan 3, Prado 2, Castro 0, Chan 0.
MALAYSIA 75 -- Yap 18, Saw 11, Low 10, Tan 8, Ting 8, Rajintiran 7, Hiew 7, Tai 4, Chia 2, Lee 0, Ho 0.
Quarters: 16-14, 42-38, 64-63, 81-75.
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