2018 FIBA Asia U18: Batang Gilas showcases the Manila Skyline in a grit and grind win versus China

Batang Gilas 73 – China 63 (Batang Gilas advances to the Quarterfinals)

Batang Gilas’ formula for trying to beat China has been pretty consistent. Turn it into a grit and grind game, so that whatever size advantage the Chinese has is immediately negated. It’s worked at times, with the 2015 FIBA Asia U16 upset sticking in most people’s minds. But moments like those have been few and far in between. China’s dominated this matchup for the most part, with their size and skill overwhelming whatever the Filipinos throw at them. For the most part, they would look like that big schoolyard bully you couldn’t mess with.

If China was the big bully, the Filipinos were that 6th grader trying to fight back versus the big bad High School student. They tried to fight back but their mantra was “If we were bigger, we’d easily kick your ass!” But the Pinoys continued to believe. They were just waiting for that growth spurt, something that would equal the scales against the schoolyard bully they wanted to beat so bad.

They finally got that, for the 2018 FIBA Asia U18 tournament, and they didn’t just get one serving. They got two. Kai Sotto standing at 7’1″ and 6’11” AJ Edu were projected to be game changers for the Philippine Basketball program. They were skilled big men, but most importantly, they had height. The size the country’s been lacking for the longest time was finally here. On August 7, they had the opportunity to go up against the bully they’ve been wanting to beat for the longest time, but this time, with a completely different look.

From the get-go, Batang Gilas tried to establish their might down low by working their sets off their big men. Edu and Sotto were aggressive in finding position for baskets, with Sotto trying to seal down low while Edu constantly moved around, looking for openings to cut towards.

With 6:59 in the game, Sotto converted off a ridiculous skyhook to score Batang Gilas’ fourth point of the game. Most importantly, it drew the second foul of Michael Wang, China’s star forward who was set to go to UPenn for college basketball. It was the kind of bucket the Philippines needed to establish their position in the game mentally versus the Chinese.

The tricky thing with learning, or gaining new skills, is you might become too reliant on them. That’s what happened initially with the Batang Gilas U16 team, as they veered away from their guards in lieu of getting their bigs going. The challenge for this U18 team was not to make the same mistake their younger brothers did. They were still facing a Chinese team with big wings. Relying too much on one’s big men could be a trap, and it was one Batang Gilas was determined not to fall towards.

On the offensive end, it the guards that controlled the offense. The dribble drive remained to be the primary point of attack of the Filipinos. What made their version particularly different, was with the personnel that they had.

Dave Ildefonso fit the mold of the dribble drive wing, possessing of size, strength and skill that made him a matchup nightmare for any defender. One of the biggest weaknesses with Ildefonso’s game right now was how out of control he could get at times. Versus China, he controlled that aggression, unleashing moves like these only when they were necessary:

While Dave attacked his way towards a team high 18 points, it was Dalph Panopio that set the table for the offense of the Philippines. What made Panopio so special was the unique control he possessed for a player his age. He never panicked despite the length he had to face versus China. He committed seven turnovers, but in a game like this, you were willing to take the good with the bad. His ability to settle things down for everyone was special. How he set up his big men for baskets like these, was even more impressive:

This play started off with a four out set. For the case of this particular play, they were ready to run a spread pick and roll, with the big screening from the top, then rolling towards the rim with open space. Usually the result of this play would be a direct pass to the screener to execute the simple pick and roll. The screener would either drive to the rim for the easy bucket, or use the attention his drive creates to kick it out to the shooter at the corner.

Instead, Batang Gilas ran a different version of this. Panopio and Edu connected for the pick and roll, but instead of dumping the ball to Edu, Panopio passed it to Sotto. The Chinese defense immediately scrambled, since they expected Edu to receive the pass down low. The hockey assist paid off for Panopio, as Sotto dished it off to Edu, for the easy basket down low.

As awesome as the offense was, the true difference maker in this game was the defense of Batang Gilas. The guards continued to play with the same amount of peskiness it always has. But what was truly astonishing to watch was how the bigs defended the rim.

Time and time again, China’s guards would try to score on the Filipinos by running a pick and roll to attack the possible the perimeter defense of Edu. It wasn’t the wisest choice, as he had the lateral speed and length to guard the drives of the Chinese:

They’d try to use their heft to get to the rim, but to no avail. Sotto was too long. Edu was too athletic. It was established, this Batang Gilas team was a completely different monster compared to what it faced before. Edu had five blocks on his own, while Sotoo had four. China only had a total of one block as a team.

China was introduced to the Manila Skyline today. And because of that, the bullies could no longer push the 6th grader around. Finally, the day he was waiting for has arrived. He was all grown up.

Photo from FIBA.com