As the FIBA Asia Olympic Qualifier reaches the Final Four, the Philippines seems to be in a good position to advance to the finals with an anemic, yet ‘I’ll-take-it-for-what-it-is’ win 82-70 against a fighting Lebanese squad. And looming as the likely adversary to meet the Gilas warriors is the mean, murder machine from China.
Yes, folks, it could be the big, bad, burly bullies of Beijing versus the Mighty Mites of Manila. It will be size versus speed; it will be the ghastly Goliath against the Daring David. It will be the power of the hometown crowd against the prayers of a distant nation if the two protagonists hurdle their respective assignments today at the ongoing Changsha-Hunan FIBA Asia Championship.
But first, the Philippines will have to dispose of a dangerous Japanese side which it had outlasted 73-66 in the second round enroute to its first place standing in Group E. Japan had earlier disposed of a vastly-improved Qatari squad 81-74 to advance to the semis.
Host China on the other hand will be facing the defending champs Iran on the other semifinal face-off today. This could be an interesting match, with the seemingly-indestructible Chinese team, undefeated and winning by ridiculously large margins, the last being a 104-58 shellacking of a totally-outclassed Indian team.
The reigning Asian kingpins Iran will be no push-overs, mind you, as they have perennial MVP Hamed Ehadadi anchoring the team, though they now appear to be the slight underdogs with the hometown crowd factor and the injury to three-point gunner Hamed Afagh. Iran had reached the Final Four with a convincing win over the equally-dangerous Korean crew 75-62. It will be recalled that in the first round, Korea had given the Chinese team its only scare before bowing out, 76-73.
China looks formidable this year even without the homecourt advantage. With a young tall crew led by veteran Yi Jian Lian, and flashy guard Guo Ailun expected to cancel out the Philippines’ dynamic duo of Andray Blatche and Jason Castro, the match-up battles at the 2-3-4 slots will be crucial. Here, the Chinese side’s huge advantage lies in their size. With the 19-year old sensation Zhou Qi, the burly Wang Zhe Lin and the consistent Zhou Peng providing the muscle and the added offensive sock. But will the height and heft of the Great China wall be able to withstand the hearts of Calvin Abueva, Gabe Norwood and Marc Pingris?
China and the Philippines had recently locked horns in the last dance campaign for the right to host the 2019 Basketball World Cup. They continue to size each other up in the blue waters of the Western Philippine Seas. China had beaten the Philippines 78-71 in their most recent encounter in the Asian Games 2014, though both didn’t fare well in the tourney. The Philippines had one-upped China in the last FIBA Asia extravaganza in Manila in 2013.
There is history, there is a bit of bad blood for these two teams. If this dream match holds true, if both teams hurdle their respective assignments tonight – the Philippines against Japan, and China versus Iran – expect the entire Filipino nation to be at the edge of their seats, watching the boob-tube, praying, wining, dining, crying, laughing, and loving every minute of it as the game’s worthy underdogs.
For once, our fractured nation will be united. As the movie Heneral Luna poignantly laments, what this country truly needs is to be united, in order for us to finally gain the respect and admiration of the world. That unifier is right there, thanks in a big way to Manny Pangilinan and the players who have shown their willingness to do battle, risk life and limb, for honor, for country, and for all the Filipino fans out there.
(Photos courtesy of fiba.com, mb.com.ph)