The Batang Gilas Under-18 national basketball team finished fourth in the recently concluded FIBA U18 Asian Championship behind Australia, New Zealand and China. It was the best finish ever by the country in this tournament after the Kobe Paras-led batch salvaged fifth place honor four years ago.
This latest feat is particularly special because of the presence of Australia and New Zealand, the top two finishers in the tournament. Both nations used to be part of the Oceania region until FIBA recently decided to merge the Asian and Oceania zones. Australia is now the highest ranked Asian team in the FIBA Boys’ ranking at No. 9, followed by China (12th), Korea (16th), Iran (26th), Japan (27th), Chinese Taipei (31st), New Zealand (33rd) and the Philippines (34th). Clearly, the inclusion of Australia and New Zealand just made the Asian Championship a lot more competitive. The Aussies nipped the Kiwis in the gold medal match, 72-63, while the Chinese avenged their first round loss to the Pinoys in the battle for third, 76-57. Batang Gilas certainly surprised many with its sensational showing in this tourney after blowing out Lebanon (75-53) and UAE (92-49) before shocking traditional Asian powerhouse China (73-63) in the Group Phase. The young Filipinos faced tough Bahrain in the quarterfinals but came out with a strong finish to eke out the 67-52 victory. In the semis however, they had to collide with the top-ranked Australian squad that proved too formidable in this competition, and suffered a 43-77 defeat. The Philippines settled for a respectable fourth spot, which is a milestone for the country in this tournament, followed by Japan (5th), Iran (6th), Bahrain (7th) and Korea (8th). It was the first time the Nationals entered the semis in the tournament, and just the second time to advance to the playoffs. The Philippines’ ranking in the FIBA Boys category is expected to improve after this feat.
Head coach Josh Reyes, eldest son of Gilas Pilipinas mentor Chot Reyes, assembled the tallest national youth squad ever with an average height of 6’4”. Seven out of the twelve members stand at least 6’4” namely: forward Joshua Ramirez (6’4”), shooting guard Rhayyan Amsali (6’4”), forward John Lina (6’5”), forward Raven Cortez (6’7”), center Shaun Tiu (6’8”), center AJ Edu (6’11”) and center Kai Sotto (7’1”). The other members are guard Gerry Abadiano (5’11”), guard Miguel Oczon (6’0”), forward Xyrus Torres (6’0”), forward Sean Ildefonso (6’0”) and guard Dalph Panopio (6’1”).
Edu, a Filipino-Brit who committed to play for NCAA Division 1 team University of Toledo in Ohio, shone brightest for Batang Gilas in the Asian Championship, leading the team in scoring (14.2 points per game) and rebounding (11.5 rebounds per game). Ateneo high school phenom Sotto followed with averages of 12.7 points and 8.7 boards. Italy-based playmaker Panopio paced the team in assists with four per outing, while incoming National University Bulldog rookie Ildefonso posted norms of 9.8 points and 1.8 assists.
This breakthrough by Batang Gilas is proof that the Gilas Pilipinas program of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) is truly working as we continue to see the rise of this country in the world basketball rankings set by FIBA. Reyes is also part of the men’s national team coaching staff and has adopted the same basketball system introduced by his dad. We must also recognize the grassroots development program of the SBP as more and more topnotch talents emerge from the 13-and-above age group. This is why over the past six years, our national youth teams have seen a growth spurt from previous batches. From being among the shortest teams in the past, the recent Philippine squads have become among the tallest in Asia. In this U-18 tournament, the only taller teams were China and Australia, with an average height of 6’6”, and Iran and New Zealand, with an average height of 6’5”.
The next challenge is to continue the country’s ascent in Asian competitions, hopefully in all levels. We also hope this present crop of young Gilas continue their commitment to the national program and make themselves available for future competitions.