IN THE end, Gilas Pilipinas had to lean on its veterans—chief of them, Jason Castro—to finish off stubborn Japan.
Castro fired five triple-spiked straight points in the final 1.50 to expand a 70-66 bubble that finally put an end to Japan’s upset pretensions.
Before that, naturalized Andray Blatche, the 6-foot-11 former American, gave the Philippines an 8-point bulge midway into the fourth.
Without the duo’s heroics, the Filipinos could have suffered disastrous results in the face of Japan’s new-found power in the sport.
Indeed, it was a bit different—scary even—on Friday when the Filipinos found themselves being suddenly seriously challenged.
It, sure, helped that Japan played before a hometown crowd that came in droves to the Komazawa Olympic gym in Tokyo.
Arriving in blazing red shirts, the Japanese spectators cheered wildly, fueling their countrymen’s boldest bid yet to score a giant upset.
It must be noted that Japan has now also recruited several local skyscrapers of its own that can really rebound and accurately shoot as well.
Add the fact that Japan had also gotten a naturalized American that can dunk at will. Likewise, Japan now boasts of an American for a coach. He fires instructions in English, with a Japanese beside him translating them to Nippongo (Japanese).
But the Filipinos, a bit reeling from the winter cold (Chot Reyes and his coaching staff were wrapped in thick sweaters), were up to the challenge.
Despite limited training, they made up for this with their grit and determination, eventually winning the opener of the Fiba Asia qualifying series in rousing fashion 77-71.
But overall, the Filipinos could only smell the sweet scent of victory when the Japanese, unyielding like cows being led to the slaughterhouse, ran out of firepower at crunch time.
Repeatedly, the hosts rallied from deficit after deficit, and even grabbed a 40-37 lead in the third period after forcing the Filipinos into successive turnovers.
Only when Castro fired that triple that order was restored for the Gilas quintet, who are aiming for an almost impossible slot to the 2019 World Cup in China.
Gilas takes on Taiwan on Monday, a game we are favored to win—again.
Cash in on Castro—again?