SJ Belangel sank an off-balanced three-pointer as the buzzer sounded at the Angeles University Foundation Gymnasium as Gilas Pilipinas, allowing the Philippine Men’s Basketball Team to escape to an 81-78 victory against long-time rival South Korea Wednesday night. It was the first victory of the PH Men’s Basketball Team against the SoKors in eight years. The victory was also sweeter because it propelled Gilas to qualify for the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup, which will be hosted by Indonesia later this year.
Many would declare Belangel’s shot a miracle. Was the win really the fruit of a miracle? Let’s identify the reasons this young squad won the game against South Korea.
First, Coach Tab Baldwin had the right personnel playing for his system. This batch of young players did not really have the best individual basketball talent in the land. Coach Tab Baldwin preferred people who will best fit his style of basketball. First and foremost on his list are players from his Ateneo Blue Eagles three-peat squad, namely the Nieto twins Matt and Mike, William Navarro, SJ Belangel, team captain Isaac Go, newly naturalized player Ange Kouame, and new kid on the block Dwight Ramos, who still has to play his first game in the UAAP in a Blue Eagles uniform. Though one of the Nieto Twins, Matt, who is Baldwin’s resident playmaker, is injured, the core of the Blue Eagles is the core of Gilas, owing to their familiarity with Baldwin’s system and in game tendencies. If you watched the game, Baldwin at least played three players from this core as his closers.
Also, most of the players in this lineup are not strangers to playing internationally. RJ Abarrientos, one of the game’s biggest revelations, played during the FIBA Asia 3×3 Cup in 2019, highlighted by him playing on one foot due to an injury and lifting his team to an emotional victory against Iran. So epic was that game it was christened as the “Abarrientos Game.” Carl Tamayo, who made his debut playing the wing position, was also a member of Batang Gilas, competing for the under-17 and under-19 competitions. The biggest addition, 7-3 Kai Sotto, was a regular fixture for the Batang Gilas program and was able to compete for the under-19 World Cup. The Nieto twins, SJ Belangel, and Isaac Go also have their fair share of international basketball experience for the Batang Gilas Squads in the past, while William Navarro and Ange Kouame played for the Ateneo team in the 2018 Jones Cup. Justine Baltazar, Jaydee Tungcab, Javi Gomez De Liano, and Ramos were part of Gilas during the last qualifying window in Manama, Bahrain. Generally, these young players are not really strangers to playing on the international level. They are familiar with the rules, some of the players they’ll be facing, and how officials make calls during games.
Also, the team is privileged to have a coaching staff who are veterans of the international basketball wars. Baldwin, the chief architect of the program and head coach, is a savvy veteran. Coach Jong Uichico has the DNA of the late great Ron Jacobs and the NCC program and has coached some iterations of the National Team, including the 2002 PBA-backed national team that lost to South Korea via the heart-breaking buzzer-beater by Lee Sang Min. Sandy Arrespacochaga was the former head coach for Batang Gilas and Caloy Garcia, who is a new addition to the pool, had assisted for Yeng Guiao during the 2018 Asian Games.
Lastly, they have the best teacher running the show, Tab Baldwin, together with his able assistants. When Lee Hyunjung sank the game-tying three pointer with two seconds left in the ball game, Coach Baldwin calmly drew up the game-winning play. His calm demeanor and approach to the seemingly tense situation gave his boys the much-need confidence and logic to execute the play. If we go back to those dying seconds, Coach Tab ran a play similar to the game-winning buzzer-beater by Matt Nieto in Taiwan during the 2018 Jones Cup. That’s how his system works. It makes players calm and collected in such nail-biting situations.
Was it a miracle? In my honest opinion it was not. Good things are born out of hard work. This team never lacked hard work. It was evident during the game when they needed to climb back from double digits to snatch the game out of the hands of the Koreans. Also, this team labored in and out of the bubble during this challenging time of pandemic. Though pushed against the wall, they still put in the necessary work. The buzzer beater of SJ Belangel was a wonder to watch and there was no miracle to that. It was sheer hard work that enabled Belangel to make that winning shot and made Filipinos sleep well for a night, at the least.