The day Batang Gilas took down Asia’s giants

‘Walang kapantay.’

That’s how Harvey Pagsanjan described the most memorable game of his life thus far. No, he wasn’t talking about the tournaments he played for Hope Christian High School, where he has established himself as the team’s star player. He wasn’t even talking about a match or a scrimmage that happened in the Philippines. Instead, he considers a game that happened overseas three years ago as the best he ever played.

Batang Gilas FIBA

The year was 2015. Jonas Tibayan, Gillian Flores, Gian Mamuyac, Harvey Pagsanjan, John Lagumen, Jethro Publico, Rap Escalona, SJ Belangel, Juan Gomez de Liaño, Dave Ildefonso, Jason Credo, Will Gozum—twelve Filipino boys represented the nation and competed against other national teams for the biennial FIBA Asia U16 Championship.

The first round was a breeze for Batang Gilas, as they easily defeated their counterparts from Thailand and Bahrain. The games were lopsided, it seemed like the tournament would be effortless for the Filipinos.

However, the real challenge came in the second round. After winning the first second round match against Iraq, the Philippines were defeated by South Korea in a close game, 74-77. With a 1-1 card, Batang Gilas would face China in its third game for the second round.

Just like how dominant China’s senior team was, the country’s junior team was a beast in the U16. Ever since the tournament started in 2009, they never dropped a game, which so far resulted to three titles in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

It was a tough task ahead for the kids. Aside from China’s history of dominance, the Philippines also had to overcome the huge height difference. While Batang Gilas only had one player standing at 6’4, China had seven players who stood taller than that—the tallest being 6’11. And in basketball, several inches of difference in height could separate a commoner from a giant on the court. Arguably, Batang Gilas were a bunch of Davids to China’s Goliaths.

But just like how David defeated Goliath, the young Filipino squad were out to slay the giants (literal and figurative) of Asian basketball.

Batang Gilas kept it close until crunch time. But with only two minutes left in the game, they were still trailing, 67-72. As time was not on their side, the young guns needed some sort of a miracle to overcome a five-point deficit.

Off the inbounds, Batang Gilas looked to make it a single-possession game. Jason, who received the ball from SJ, faked a shot from deep. His defender bit the fake, and was left in mid-air when he blew by him. Off the drive, Jason attracted three more defenders, one of which was assigned to Harvey. And so, with another fake, he made a pass in mid-air. The ball found its way to Harvey from deep.

BANG!

Harvey made the three-point shot. And so the lead went down to two. On the other end, Batang Gilas executed an airtight defense against the much taller players from China. It took 21 seconds for someone to drive the ball to the lane, only to kick out to a shooter for a contested three. China missed, and the possession went back to he Filipinos. This time, they faced an impenetrable defense. Failing to get the ball inside the paint, SJ passed the ball to Jason, who elected to shoot the three over the outstretched arms of his defender.

The ball kissed the glass, then found its way into the hoop. BANG! Batang Gilas took the lead, 73-72.

It took a minute and two three-pointers for Batang Gilas to turn a five-point deficit into a one-point lead. But the game was still far from over. With a minute remaining, Batang Gilas had to pull all the stops to keep the win. On the next play, Batang Gilas showed its airtight defense once more. China’s attempt to get to the paint went to naught when Jonas Tibayan tipped the ball for the steal. They zoomed the other way for the fastbreak.

Easy deuce! The Philippines raised its lead to three, 75-72, with only 45 seconds remaining in the game.

Now desperate to regain control of the game, China tried to get a quick corner three off a timeout, but missed. Batang Gilas had its chance to seal the game for good. But in what turned out to be Gilas’ final offensive play, the Philippines can’t find a way to penetrate the defense of China. With time running out, SJ took a chance from deep over two tall defenders, who managed to barely challenge the shot due to Jason’s screen.

It went in!

Gilas ended the game with an 11-0 run, and an unlikely comeback to win the game, and hand China its first loss in the tournament’s history.

‘I can’t explain the feeling kasi first time yun, first time din matalo ng China. It’s like a championship game kasi history din eh.’

This is what Jason Credo told me when I asked him about that game. It’s been almost three years since they defeated China, but the guys who were there still talks about it as if it happened just yesterday.

Jason Credo FIBA

I can’t blame them. China was taller, better, stronger. Against all odds, these kids, not even at the legal age for driving, drove past their limits and took home a big win away from home.

A lot has changed since then. A new set of young guns represented the Philippines in the recently concluded FIBA Asia U16. Kai Sotto, Terrence Fortea, Raven Cortez and the rest of the Batang Gilas successfully clinched a spot on the FIBA World Cup U17 later this year.

As for the past Batang Gilas members, they continued to excel in their basketball careers. SJ, Jason and Dave had just ended their high school careers as UAAP champions with Ateneo. Will transferred from UPIS to Mapua, where he became a dominant force en route to his NCAA Jrs. MVP in his last high school season. Harvey became Hope’s star player as a Grade 11 student—still a year away from graduation.

SJ and Jason chose to stay at Ateneo. Dave transferred to NU. Will went home to UP. But no matter where they end up, these players will always have the memory of playing together, of taking down the biggest name in Asian basketball. That is one golden moment that the basketball-crazy Philippines will remember for generations to come.

Game clips courtesy of Bing Credo, Photos courtesy of FIBA.com

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