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PART II: What curse? Revisiting the Gilas W vs S. Korea (2021)

In chess, there’s a term used when a player gets humiliated so badly by his opponent: “adoption.” Basically, being “adopted” by someone in chess means that you lost to that guy 10 straight games. You lost so badly that you’re now legally his/her child. Similarly, the Philippines has been “adopted” several times by South Korea […]

In chess, there’s a term used when a player gets humiliated so badly by his opponent: “adoption.” Basically, being “adopted” by someone in chess means that you lost to that guy 10 straight games. You lost so badly that you’re now legally his/her child.

Similarly, the Philippines has been “adopted” several times by South Korea on the basketball court. We’ve lost in every way imaginable to them: comeback wins, blow-outs, nail-biters, all of them. We somehow broke free from their grasp in 2013, but immediately the team was sucked back into the custody of their Korean fathers in 2014.

But this year, an improbable group of players made a defiant stand against Korea. Against all odds, they broke through the “adoption,” the “curse,” and did what no Philippine team has done against SoKor in a long time: beat them twice.

June 16, 2021. Clark City, Pampanga, Philippines.

Gilas Pilipinas was set to face off against South Korea in Group E of the FIBA Asia Qualifiers. Both teams sat at a 3-0 record, and a win guaranteed a spot in the main tournament. The Philippines, as usual, was not favored to win this matchup. “Kami siguro ‘yung pinaka-youngest team na in-accomplish ng Gilas history,” SJ Belangel said of their team. “Bata kami, bago kami, tapos bago ‘yung sistema, tapos handle pa ni Coach Tab.” This was part of a rebuild, a move to cement the foundation of the program in the future.

Despite their youth and relative inexperience internationally, the team was raring to get out there and prove their worth. SJ remembered Coach Tab telling them, “Imagine yourself in the game while you’re resting,” the day before the game. Because of this, the team was extremely hyped up and focused heading into the match. Before the game, SJ said about that final huddle, “Super hyped kami na nakita niya, gusto na namin lumabas at manalo. Kaya sabi niya sa amin ‘wag too much [eager], kasi baka mag-backfire. You just have to do what you have to do, since na-ready na kami ni Coach Tab.”

However, Gilas was caught off-guard by the physical play of the young South Korean squad. SJ pointed out their defensive stopper Lee Daesung, saying that “Konti na lang magkapalitan sila ng mukha [ni Dwight].” That first half was a wake-up call to them regarding the physicality in FIBA Asia. “Sa practice namin, konting tulak lang foul na. Kasi iba ‘yung pito sa FIBA… sa Asia, konting hawak, foul. Pero dun namin nakita na iba na basketball sa Asia, kahit hawakan ka or arm bar, okay lang.”

That physical defense led to the Koreans jumping to an early 21-12 lead after one quarter, and the lead ballooning to as much as 17 points in the second quarter. Filipino fans everywhere started sweating, including former Gilas captain Gabe Norwood, who was watching the game with his kids at home. He knows all too well how hard it is to come back from a big lead. “Any time you’re down double digits in international play, it’s hard. Ten-minute quarters, the game’s a lot faster than the PBA or the NBA, so it’s a tough spot to be in.” 

But the Filipino spirit never broke. SJ and the team came back in the second quarter to cut the lead to eight before halftime, before finally breaking through with a 20-13 third quarter to get within one point. He credited their coaching staff, which kept them ready and prepared for scenarios like this.

Si Coach Tab, Coach Sandy, Coach Jong, [sinabihan kami] na kailangan mag-adjust kasi ‘yung calls iba. Kung ‘di na gumana ‘yung game plan, mag-adjust na,” he said. For example, he noted that they were doubling Ricardo Ratliffe in the post to start the game, but that wasn’t working because he was being passive. So they adjusted by sticking to their man and letting Ange Kouame or Kai Sotto take Ratliffe one-on-one.

Those little adjustments and their composure are what impressed Norwood the most about the team. “They could’ve gotten down on themselves, gave up, but they didn’t,” he said. “They’re very mature in the way the way they adjusted to adversity within the game, whether it was a bad shot or a turnover. It seemed like they were very positive, very uplifting with one another.”

The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair. The Philippines tried to keep the Korean assault at bay, but after seven minutes of struggling, the Koreans went on a 7-0 run to reclaim a five-point lead with less than three minutes to go. Gilas, never backing down, went on a mini-run as well to capture a three-point lead with 10 seconds to go, capped by an and-one opportunity for Kouame.

But then, the curse reared its ugly head. In a sequence that mirrored the infamous 2002 heartbreaker, Kouame missed the bonus free-throw. On the ensuing fast break, Lee Hyung-Jung, star shooter of the Korean program, stopped behind the three-point line, faked once, and drilled an icy three-pointer to tie the game. Of course, South Korea still had another trick up their sleeve. Norwood even recalled looking back to his kids and saying, “That’s going in,” before Hyung-Jung rose up for the three.

SJ and the team weren’t fazed at all though. “I remember, sabi ni Coach Sandy, ‘Relax kayo! Eto ‘yung pinag-practice-an natin,’” Belangel said. “Syempre kami, ‘di kami papatalo… Sabi namin sa timeout, ‘di pa naman tapos, may time pa.” 

Coach Tab Baldwin then drew up a set play for Carl Tamayo to get an open shot from the high post. The idea was to try and force Ratliffe outside and allow Tamayo to get a good look. However, things went awry immediately for Gilas. Ange Kouame misremembered the play, and chaos ensued. It seemed like no one was going to be open. “‘Yung option ko lang non was go to the corner… nakita siguro ni Dwight na wala akong tao sa likod, and ‘yun na. History made.”

History made, indeed. With barely over three seconds left, SJ Belangel hit an awkward off-balance three to flip the tables and break Korea’s heart for once. It was the type of play that would’ve blown the roof off of the arena if there was a crowd, a nice change of pace from the usual script.

And they weren’t done rewriting the script: just four days later, they beat the same Korean team again 82–77. The Philippines held a slim lead throughout most of the match and fended off their rivals. These two wins have many people believing that finally, we have broken the curse.

SJ certainly thinks that for now, it’s been broken. But he doesn’t want to rest on these laurels and be overconfident. “Since natalo namin back-to-back, na-break na namin,” he said. “Pero that doesn’t mean na sa future games, mabe-break namin coz we don’t know what will happen. Everyone is improving, every country is improving.”

“But without a doubt, ‘di kami magpapatalo‘di namin hahayaan para sa bayan na matatalo ulit tayo ng Korea.”

Photos from FIBA