Philippines Sinag Basketball’s gold shows talent gap in SEA Games is still wide

Sinag Pilipinas' romp to the gold medal in the 26th Southeast Asian Games, which culminated in an 85-57 dismissal of Thailand in the championship last night, only showed that the rest of Southeast Asia still has a ways to go before anyone can mount a serious challenge to the Philippines in men's basketball.

The team, composed mostly of collegiate players, won all its five games by an average of 39.4 points, and was only seriously challenged for a while by Malaysia, which managed to stay within three points at halftime of their semifinal encounter.

What's more, this wasn't even the best amateur team that we could send. Several college stars like Far Eastern University's Aldrech Ramos, naturalized center Marcus Douthit, and the San Sebastian trio of Calvin Abueva, Ian Sangalang and Ronald Pascual all declined their invitations, although Sangalang and Pascual were still practicing with team as recently as a month before the SEA Games.

'A very young team'

Sinag Pilipinas coach Norman Black said all five were on his wish list, but from the looks of things, they really weren't needed. In fact, adding the six-foot-eleven Douthit would have been overkill. This team still got the job done, and Black noted that the gold medal triumph, the country's 13th in the biennial games, was a good training ground for the future.

"The good thing about this win for the Philippines is the fact that it's a very young team," Black noted. "We've got two 18-year-olds (Kiefer Ravena and Bobby Ray Parks), and they're going up against the 29-, 30-year-olds of the other teams. So it probably tells the story that Philippine basketball is in good hands. These guys are very, very young. Fortunately for us, we can use this as a training ground to get experience internationally and hopefully to represent the country again as they get older."

Among the 12 Sinag players, skipper Chris Tiu, still a young 26 years old, is already the elder statesman. Four players — Chris Ellis, Cliff Hodge, Greg Slaughter, and Jake Pascual — are 23. The rest are 22 and below. In contrast, 10 of Thailand's 12 players are 26 or older, and most of them play professionally in the ASEAN Basketball League (ABL).

The core of Sinag is being eyed to form part of Smart Gilas II, where they will join forces with a pool of professionals from the Philippine Basketball Association in a new national team that hopes to build on the progress of the original Gilas, which finished fourth in the recent FIBA-Asia Championships.

Even though the SEAG tournament was reduced to a battle for the silver medal among the rest of the eight-team field, Black noted that some countries are showing signs of improvement. A couple of them, namely Thailand and Cambodia, have started tapping their own foreign-bred players in an effort to improve their talent level.

"I was really impressed with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia," Black said. "I think that they have made great strides in basketball. They may not have the skill level of the Filipino players, but I think they're getting there."

This may sound a little hard to believe, but some teams had more height overall. Actually, remove the seven-foot Slaughter and Sinag has one of the shorter line-ups in the tournament. Other teams like Thailand, Malaysia and even Cambodia all fielded taller players at the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions. They just didn't have good ballhandlers or talented wingmen to match the firepower of a Ravena-RR Garcia backcourt or the explosiveness of Parks, Ellis and Hodge.

Defense and running game won it

Even though the gold medal was widely expected — Samahang Basketball ng Pilipinas president Manny V. Pangilinan reportedly told Black in jest to not bother coming home if they didn't win the gold medal — the coach still felt proud of the feat.

"It feels good," he said. "I mean, whenever you can win a gold medal for the country, it's a good feeling. That was the purpose of us coming here to the SEA Games, representing the basketball team. As a coach, you just feel very proud and happy for the players, particularly under the circumstances, just really coming together only a couple of weeks to go before the tournament."

The pool of players — which also included Jeric Teng and Jeric Fortuna of the University of Sto. Tomas, Justin Chua and Frank Golla of Ateneo, Rome De la Rosa of San Beda, and Fil-Am Karl Matthew Dehesa, started practicing once a week last February.

"It really helped us a lot because it made it easier for us to play once the tournament came around," Black noted. "The defense was pretty solid. We were able to get out and run the entire tournament. Actually, we ran the teams off the court. That's the way we won the championship. The most important thing is we displayed a lot of teamwork. I think they all played well. I think everybody stepped up and played well in this tournament. That was really the key to this team."

With a line-up full of players who are stars on their own teams, Black's biggest challenge was juggling the minutes of everyone, and he addressed this by rotating them several times each game.

"I told them right from the very start that I would sub out every five to six minutes and I would give everybody a chance to shine," he revealed. "I also told them I didn't really want them to pace themselves. We were so talented, I wanted them to go hard for the five or six minutes they were on the floor. Then I would just get the next guy in. And of course, as a coach, the thing you hope for is that everybody will contribute and step up, and I think they did."

Individual scores of gold-medal match vs. Thailand:

Sinag Pilipinas (85) — Slaughter 16, Parks 15, Garcia 12, Ravena 10, Monfort 8, Tiu 6, Marcelo 6, Pascual 5, Hodge 5, Salva 2, Ellis 0.

Quarterscores: 21-17, 44-25, 61-42, 85-57

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