MANILA, Philippines – "We hope na mapansin niyo na kami."
This was the sentiment of coach Patrick Aquino after the Gilas Pilipinas Women finally achieved their dream of winning the gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games, with a 91-71 clobbering of Thailand on Tuesday night at the Mall of Asia Arena.
Filipino fans poured steadily into the venue as the game went on, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, a large crowd was on hand to witness the Filipinas' coronation.
The final score doesn't indicate how difficult the game – and the tournament -- was for the Filipinas. They had to battle for tough wins against Indonesia and Malaysia just to be in a position to win the gold, and were up against a Thai team that featured a WNBA player in Tiffany Bias.
A double-digit first half lead went up in smoke amid a bevy of turnovers by the Gilas Women, and it looked as though the game was headed down the wire.
Jack Animam had other ideas, however. The National University center sparked a 7-0 run to open the third quarter, and they locked Bias down and forced her into foul trouble. The Filipinas pulled away again, and this time, they did not let up.
"Incredible game. They never stopped. We were up by 12 in the first quarter or in the second quarter. I know Thailand is gonna come back and they did," said Aquino.
"I was telling the guys to just settle down, just keep on doing what we talked about, and just keep on fighting, and that's what we did in third quarter," he added.
For Aquino, the SEA Games gold is the culmination of nearly half a decade's worth of hard work and heartbreak. He first handled the women's team in the 2015 SEA Games, where they came one win short of the gold and missed the podium altogether.
The same thing happened in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur, after which Aquino dropped some prophetic words: "Probably, that's the end of the jinx for women's basketball. Not here, but two years from now."
The heartbreak was worth it for Aquino and his players, as they got to win and celebrate at home. For so many of the Filipino fans who watched them play for the first time, the Gilas Women put on a show. Janine Pontejos displayed her incredible shooting touch, Animam was unstoppable in the gold medal game, and Afril Bernardino showed exactly why she was a three-time UAAP MVP with her tireless performances.
Chack Cabinbin earned plenty of fans when she put Thai defenders on skates in the third quarter, and Khate Castillo was the spark off the bench that the team needed.
"It's been a long time, we've been doing this since 2015, and now the gold is with us, and I'm just so happy," said Aquino. "Not happy for the girls only but for the whole country and the women's side."
After this, however, what's next? Aquino can only hope that the Philippines can sustain and build on their breakthrough gold.
"We've been dreaming of that since Day 1 that we handled the national team, na sana we make it great for women," said the coach.
"Lagi na lang puro kami sana," he added. "(But) now that we're here, we achieved the goals that we're supposed to do, and sana, for me, to keep it growing."
"You know, let's not just let this pass… Sana we could, you know, achieve more by supporting us."
There is no professional league for the women's players to return to, with the Women's National Basketball League identified as a regional, amateur competition. Aquino is hopeful that their achievement in the SEA Games will finally compel sponsors to support women's basketball.
"That's the dream na gusto ko," he said. "Now, that I'm the program director for women's basketball, I really want women's basketball to grow. Hopefully, a sponsor will come in next year and help us out to have a league of their own for women's basketball."
It is a sentiment shared by his players. Bernardino, who has played as an import in other countries, said this victory will open doors for women's basketball.
"Sinasabi namin na siguro wala pa kaming napapatunayan kaya siguro wala pa kaming support," said Bernardino, who experienced painful losses in 2015 and 2017. "But now, ginrab talaga namin 'tong opportunity na ‘to para mabigyan ng chance ang women’s basketball talaga."
Pontejos, for her part, said: "Sobrang special sa amin 'to kasi ito na 'yung siguradong magpapakilala sa women's basketball team. Siguro naman, hindi na nila kami … wala nang masasabi, kasi may napatunayan na kami."
Aquino said whoever invests in women's basketball won't regret, and instead, will be proud of the women's efforts.
"These girls really work hard. Walang mga prima donna. They're gonna play as hard as they can," he vowed. "We can see them kanina. They really dive for the ball, really fight for the defense, fight for that box out or rebound."
At the moment, however, the Gilas Women and their coaching staff are thinking about rest.
"But we're not stopping here. I think the girls really want to prove more," Aquino stressed. "Next stop, FIBA Asia naman. Hopefully, 'yun naman ang target namin."
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