The mood inside the Gilas Youth dugout was heavy.
Gilas Youth had just lost versus Greece, 85-69, to start their campaign in the FIBA U19 World Cup. But that loss was at that back of their minds. Instead their thoughts were with AJ Edu, who was left the game in first quarter due to a scary knee injury. The dream tournament of this dream lineup suddenly turned into a nightmare.
What type of injury was it?
The team eventually reported AJ’s injury was initially diagnosed as an ACL tear, hairline fracture, and meniscal tear.
Would he be able to play again?
Recovery time for injuries of that extent normally takes a year. He was done for the tournament.
Finally and maybe most importantly: Was he going to be okay?
“AJ is their friend, not just their teammate,” said Gilas Youth head coach Sandy Arespacochaga. Thankfully, AJ gave the team assurance about his condition. “Don’t worry. I’ll bounce back from this,” he told them then. That allowed the players to breathe a bit easier.
Yet, even with that assurance, there was still the now heavier challenge ahead. From a basketball point of view, they were down to just two big boys, Kai Sotto and Geo Chiu who could man the paint like AJ. They small team just got smaller.
“We could have easily used that as an excuse,” said coach Sandy. An excuse to roll over and die. An excuse to not play their best, for fear of getting injured as well. It would have been understandable, but it would have also felt disrespectful.
They were already there, in the World Cup, with so many people who fueled their journey to Greece. Giving up was not an option. To the soldiers, who inspired them and shared what serving the country was all about. To the stakeholders, who have supported them ever since their stint in the FIBA Asia U18 tournament. Most importantly, to the country, that they carried at the front of their jerseys. There they were, in the grandest stage of basketball, with the opportunity to show the world what Philippine Basketball was all about.
The team decided they were still in this tournament to fight. But there was still another lingering question.
How were they going to pull this off?
The immediate answer many gave was to find someone who could replace what AJ provided. That’s the thing though, there’s no one in the team who could fit the square peg AJ left, as the rest of the big men of Gilas Youth were of different shapes. Kai and Geo had the height, but not the mobility and athleticism. Carl Tamayo and Rhayyan Amsali had the offensive polish, but not the explosiveness and defensive prowess that made AJ special. It was difficult to just plug someone in and expect him to perform like AJ. That’s why the Coaching staff went with a different approach.
“We [needed to] step up by doing things as a team, not just one guy filling in for AJ,” said Coach Sandy. “Yun yung parang ginawa naming thrust. That’s what we emphasized with our players.”
Even against Greece, Gilas Youth already tried different ways as a team to overcome the loss of AJ. It wasn’t polished yet, but the team had a model to build on for future games: Team Defense. Instead of finding one perfect piece to fill out this blank space, why not just fuse the shapes to create the best possible shape to cover the hole?
AJ’s biggest strength as a player has always been his shot blocking. During the FIBA Asia U18 tournament last year, he blocked the most shots among all players with a total of 17. Two qualities blended together made him such a force on that end of the floor: length and mobility. Where was Gilas Youth going to find those with the 11 players they had left?
Unsurprisingly, it was Kai who embraced being the anchor of the Philippine defense. Unlike the U18 tournament where AJ covered up a lot of Kai’s holes, this time it was Kai that fit the hole left by AJ.
By the end of the U19 World Cup, Kai was tied with Ibou Dianko Badji of Senegal as the top shot blockers of the entire tournament having blocking 22 shots. More than just the sheer number, what impressed was how Kai got those blocks. His training in Atlanta began to bear fruit, as he was more explosive vertically. His lateral speed was much more impressive as well, as opposing pick and rolls were often found second guessing themselves when attacking Kai off a switch.
There was definitely progress on Kai’s part, but he still had his limits. He was faster, but he wasn’t as fast as AJ. There was added explosion, but not enough to match what AJ brought. He couldn’t do it alone. Enter the rest of the team.
The beauty with the type of team defense Gilas Youth employed was how dedicated every player was in making Kai’s life easier as their fortress in the paint. Noted scorers like Carl and Rhayyan exerted more effort, rotating quicker on the defensive end. Dalph Panopio and Gerry Abadiano continued to be bother opposing guards. Dave Ildefonso and James Spencer provided help where ever it was needed.
During the first three games of Gilas Youth, they limited teams to just 79.3 points per game. It was respectable, especially factoring in the limitations of this group and the level of competition they were up against.
Yet, there Gilas couldn’t break through. They were slowing down teams from scoring. Problem was, they couldn’t put up the points needed to win.
They say a lot of what fuels defense is desire. It wasn’t surprising then to see Gilas Youth excel on that end, given how much we talk about the heart of the Filipino when the going gets tough. But Coach Sandy knew effort alone wouldn’t be enough.
“It can’t be just, parati na lang puso,” Coach Sandy explained. “These other teams play with heart too.” The effort on defense was commendable, but something was clearly wrong with their offense.
The team only got to train together for one month and they weren’t even always complete due to prior commitments. Dalph only got to join the team a week prior to the tournament. Because of their chemistry issues, the team often reverted back to their first instincts as players.
Ingrained in the blood of the team was playing isolation basketball. Considering the type of talent each player had, they were each dominant in their own right. Dave is a match-up problem because of his size and skill. Carl has a polishd low post game. Kai, with his variety of moves and natural length, was close to impossible to stop without fouling.
That’s in the local scene though. In the world stage, iso-tricks they were used to wouldn’t cut it.
“What we normally do in the Philippines, we can’t do here,” said Coach Sandy. “It’s an eye opener.”
With the perimeter oriented offense of Gilas Youth failing to result in easy baskets, the team opted to go to what they were used to. When a mismatch off a switch would happen, Dave would ask for a clear out. After every quick seal, Carl would slowly pound the ball in the hopes of scoring a basket. During times he’d find himself in a one-on-one situation, Kai would ask for the ball.
Those moments should have resulted into easy baskets. But they didn’t. Dave and Carl were facing bigger defenders. Kai, on the other hand, still lacked the strength to properly seal his guy. Even the guards of the team had difficulty dumping the ball to Kai because of the length of their defenders.
“Man for man, these teams are stronger than us,” said Coach Sandy. And yet, they still rely on a lot of teamwork.” Playing isolation basketball was not a feasible option. Unfortunately, during the first few games of the tournament, that’s what the team often relied on. In their first three games, they averaged just 14 assists which would have ranked last for the entire tournament. That number spoke volumes not only of the struggles of the Filipinos, but also of the caliber of their competition. It was looking bleak for the country. Was it finally time to roll over and give up?
Gilas said no. That’s not how they operated. The team actually had a potential solution to their offensive woes. It was right in front of them.
A lot of Gilas’ action last year revolved around getting the ball to Kai in the low block and allowing the offense to flow off that. He was the centerpiece of their offense, which made sense considering the sheer gravity he had against opposing defenses. It worked with Ateneo in the Philippines as well as with Gilas in Asia. But the World Cup was different from Asia and the Philippines. Far different.
With Kai lacking the strength to seal and gain control with his creation, the coaching staff needed to change things up. That’s why instead of relying on post action, the coaching staff opted to run a system built around ball movement AND player movement. The team pivoted and opted to run more hand-off action, or pick and rolls that would flow to passes off the short roll, and many more. In theory, it made sense. But it was more difficult to implement.
The problem with running this type of action was that it needed plenty of practice and solid chemistry to run properly. One month of being together, with incomplete attendance wasn’t going to cut it. Their offensive pivot resulted in a 27 point elimination loss against Serbia, where they dished out only 11 assists. They could have gone back to iso-ball. But they didn’t
The Philippines lost by 22 to Australia in their first classification game. Despite that, the coaching staff looked more delighted, walking back to their locker room. The same could be said between the players. The team knew something was up. Their struggles were finally building towards something.
Gilas Youth’s game agaisnt the Boomers was actually one of their best the entire tournament. The team dished out 17 assists, their tournament-high at that point. That number perfectly represented how much better their offense was flowing. They were no longer forcing post-ups and isolations as much. Instead of just standing still and waiting for the ball to come to them, everyone, from guard to big, was cutting when an open lane presented itself. Their offense had flow and energy. Moving the ball around increased that energy with every pass. Most importantly, that energy transferred itself from one player to another.
In typical fashion, the team ended its huddle by shouting “PUSO!”. But this time around, it meant more. Despite losing all of its games at that point, the team knew their heart was getting somewhere. This wasn’t blind belief.
The next day, they had the perfect opportunity to show just that, as they were set to face regional rivals, China.
This was the perfect stage for Kai to exert his dominance as Asia’s best, until it wasn’t.
With still eight minutes left in the second quarter, Kai picked up his third foul. The game was still tight, with the Philippines leading by just one point at that time. It wasn’t looking good for Gilas.
“If you were to ask me if we’d win a game without AJ and with Kai fouling out, playing little minutes, di mo maisip how that would be,” said coach Sandy. Those were their two best players off the floor. It brought them back to that question they asked early on: How were they going to pull this off?
The team continued to play with their renewed flow and energy. They kept at it until the final buzzer. They had actually done it. They got their first World Cup win. With Kai in foul trouble and AJ injured, Gilas had actually beaten China by a convincing margin. Right after the game, the team shook hands with their opponents respectfully and calmly. But once they entered the locker room, it was a whole different story.
“Feeling namin talaga sa locker room, magbabatuhan na sila ng tubig,” said Coach Sandy. “Pero inawat namin kasi may games pa, others will use the locker room.”
Gilas Youth pulled it off, their first win in the U19 level in 40 years. It sounded unbelievable to do this without Kai and AJ, but there was reason to their success.
“Cliche, pero team effort talaga,” said coach Sandy.
He wasn’t joking. By the end of the game, Gilas Youth had 20 of their 30 total field goal makes come off assists. This didn’t come out of sheer luck. It came out of the team’s commitment to the system the coachng staff put in place, and the wisdom they had gained in their World Cup losses.
Doing it as individuals wouldn’t cut it. “World basketball is about team work. Hindi bara bara,” said Gilas Youth team manager Andrew Teh. It was delightful to see two of their best players, Carl and Dave, lead the way for Gilas.
Dave had a splendid tournament all-throughout, averaging the 9th most points among all countries. But versus China, he did more than just score. Taking advantage of the team’s perimeter oriented attack, Dave used his deep bag of tricks to help the team’s cause. His penetration and isolation dominance were there. At the same time, he used the gravity his attacking created to give his teammates opportunities to score.
One such teammate was Carl. With Kai in foul trouble, he took control and assumed the position as Gilas’ main man in the low post. No longer was he just begging for the ball in the post to isolate. Instead, he was moving as he attacked, giving himself, and others better opportunities to score.
While the team was doing work, the team had a seven-footer as a cheerleader to push them. “Kahit si Kai tuwang tuwa,” said coach Sandy. “He showed a lot of maturity. He was one of the happiest for his teammates despite fouling out.” The chemistry of the team wasn’t just built on the court. Even off the court, the brotherhood of Gilas Youth had blossomed. It was never about them as individuals. Always for the country, more than themselves.
While the team ended their tournament on a sour note with a heartbreaking loss against New Zealand, they still picked up a lot of good things out of that game. Their teamwork still blossomed as they dished out 20 assists again. Dalph Panopio, after a rough tournament, finally had a breakout game. They left with a loss, but had no doubt. Never, doubt. Instead, they left Greece with hope for what’s to come for Philippine Basketball.
“When you go back, share with your teammates, your teams, your coaches, the kind of basketball you saw here,” coach Sandy told his players. “We should be thinking world stage. We should be thinking beyond the Philippines, beyond how basketball is played in our country.”
This tournament should be proof of how talented Philippine Basketball truly is. It wasn’t height that brought them here, as important a factor as that was. “[This team is] special in terms of height, maybe,” said sir Andrew. “I know it can help but it’s not the only thing [needed] to win games in the World Cup.”
This collection of dominant individuals learned to go beyond themselves. All with the goal of furthering a country’s collective goal: supremacy in the world stage. It’s a lofty goal to aim for. But to aim for anything lower would be disrespect to the players, and to the battle cry of the program.
“Laban Pilipinas! Puso!”
Photos from FIBA.com