To win gold, we knew what we had to do: Play near-perfect basketball. And for the first four minutes last Saturday night, we performed like we did against Iran.
Jayson Castro scored two in the 50th second. Dondon Hontiveros unleashed an intercontinental ballistic missile against Beijing that detonated in Changsa. We were up 5-0 after 90 seconds. Then, after an avengeful three from Y. Ding, our Gabe Norwood uncorked a jumper to move us forward, 7-3. Back to back threes from both squads advanced the score. We led 10-6. Then, 12-10. And after Norwood converted on a surprising three-pointer, our beloved Pilipinas, after 3:58 elapsed in the game, commanded a 15-10 lead!
Was it going to be this easy? Were we flying to Rio de Janeiro, our first Olympic trek since the 1972 days of Bogs Adornado and Manny Paner? As “prize,” were we going to claim the Spratly Islands?
Too bad, our luck evaporated. The Chinese accelerated on 12 unanswered points. Within minutes, our advantage disappeared and, by the end of the first quarter, we trailed 23-19. We would never draw closer — trailing by as much as 16 before the final score, 78-67.
What happened? Simple. Had we played like we played in those first 3:58 minutes, we’d have claimed victory. That was the only path. Our 31st-ranked Philippines battling the world’s 14th-ranked nation, our average old age (31) versus China’s youthful average of 24, our height disadvantage, with the Chinese averaging 6-foot-8 — the only way to beat the world’s most populous nation (our 100 million-strong population versus their 1.3 billion) was to play like we did in those first 238 seconds.
We did not. We couldn’t sustain it. Here’s the most telling statistic: Castro scored five quick points after the game’s first two and a half minutes. You know how many more he scored in the rest of the game? Three. In all, Castro attempted 14 times and converted only thrice for a lowly 21.4% clip. There’s no way we’re going to win if Asia’s best point guard scores a measly eight points.
And we blame poor officiating for the loss? Come on, guys. We lost because we played perfectly for four minutes and subpar and unsatisfactorily for the next 36.
Here’s another disappointing statistic: our free throw percentage. In one stretch, Calvin Abueva missed four in a row and five out of six. In those moments when no seven-footer is fronting us, we miss. In all, we missed nine free throws while making 15. (Reminds me of the three straight free throw misses of Kiefer Ravena in last Sunday’s Ateneo loss to La Salle.)
Overall, our field goal percentages were lowly: We shot 6-of-24 from three point range (25 percent) and 23-of-65 total for a 35.4% field goal percentage.
Why such a terrible outing — possibly our worst showing apart from that loss to Palestine — on the tournament’s most important game?
I’ll answer this query based on my experience as a tennis player. There are moments when, faced with a weak opponent, I’m scoring winners and playing like Roger Federer. But when up against, for example, a Johnny Arcilla, I may look like a beginner, losing 6-0.
My point? It depends on the opponent. And the Chinese were unstoppable. First, their height. They possessed double twin towers: two 7-footers in Yi and Wang while Zhou stood at 7’1” and Li at 7’2”. When those long legs jump and those long arms outstretch, to a 6-footer like Terrence Romeo, they look like a forest packed with giant Sequoia trees.
Andray Blatche, standing 6’11”, soared tall against the likes of Japan and Lebanon. He received the ball at the top of the key; he’d back up, cross-dribble, turn and sprint towards the goal for an uncontested two. In previous games, he dominated with his height. Not against China, where he was intimidated to penetrate, getting blocked by gangly Chinese arms.
Our one-two punch consisting of Castro and Blatche inflicted only jabs instead of uppercuts. They scored a combined 25 points (compared to 44 against Iran). Not good enough. Good enough for silver — but not gold.