Year in Review 2018: The wild ride of Gilas Pilipinas (Part 2)

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series. Read Part 1 of our Gilas Pilipinas year-ender here.

It was difficult to pull something positive out of the Philippines-Australia brawl. As much as it united 12 players on the same side of the court, it divided a nation. The unfortunate incident etched a solid line between "embarrassing" and "sticking up for your brother."

It also rocked the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP). Everyone was looking for a statement, an explanation or anything from the federation. But while that was a concern, there was a more pressing issue - the Asian Games that the country had to be ready for in six weeks.

Late in May, it was announced that the TNT KaTropa would represent the country in the regional. However, things had to change because of the brawl. There were four TNT players involved in the incident so the SBP decided that it would be best to rest them first, take them out of the spotlight and let the issue dwindle down.

On July 26, the Rain or Shine Elasto Painters rose as heroes when they volunteered to send their team to the quadrennial event with Coach Yeng Guiao as mentor. It was exciting times for Philippine basketball. But it would only last a while. Just hours after that announcement, the SBP released a statement saying that the Philippines would no longer join the Asian Games.

That was a curve ball. No one had expected that announcement, especially just hours after revealing the team that was going supposed to fight for flag. But the SBP decided that skipping the tournament would "allow our national team and organization to regroup, prepare for the process of appealing the FIBA Disciplinary Panel's recent decision, and aim for sustainable success in future tournaments."

So, goodbye 2018 Asian Games. For about a week, at least.

On August 5, less than two weeks before the Asiad, the SBP and the PBA held another press conference that announced that the Philippines will be sending a team to Jakarta after all.

SBP President Al Panlilio revealed that the decision to pull out proved to be unpopular and was met by appeals, one of which came from Special Assistant to the President Bong Go. All of those led to the decision of the federation to reconsider.

Apart from getting the go signal, Guiao was also granted his wish to tap players from other PBA teams. He reunited with Paul Lee and acquired the services of promising big man JP Erram. And with the Asian Games being more lenient with naturalized players, he was able to include both Stanley Pringle and Christian Standhardinger in his lineup.

But that was far from the end of questions regarding the Asian Games. There was a particular one that tickled the fantasies of every Filipino basketball fan. The rumors of Jordan Clarkson finally suiting up for the Philippines seemed to be more realistic than ever.

Guiao reserved a roster spot for the Filipino-American NBA player. The SBP did its job in going back and forth with the Asian Games committee for Clarkson's eligibility. He already got the green light from them. But on August 12, the NBA released a statement that said the Asian Games is not on the list competitions wherein NBA players are allowed to participate in. Thus, it was a no go.

Three days later, the NBA gave Clarkson a "one-time exception" that ultimately allowed him to play for the Philippines. It finally the end of a baffling stretch for the Cleveland Cavaliers guard. The only person who was probably as confused as him was Don Trollano who was in and out of the lineup to replace Clarkson.

Clarkson arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia on August 16, the same day of Gilas Pilipinas' first game versus Kazakhstan. He wasn't able to play as he only arrived in the second half, but he watched his team take a commanding 96-59 win.

The fantasy was fulfilled when Clarkson finally donned the a Philippines jersey in their game versus China. He wasted no time in proving his worth. He led the way with 28 points, eight rebounds, four assists and five three-pointers. Gilas was well on its way to winning too, but the Chinese mustered up a 5-0 run to claim an 82-80 victory.

It heartbreaking loss because Gilas could have been the landed the top seed in Group D and could have played Indonesia in the quarters. Instead, we dropped to second in our group and bumped into Korea in the first round of the playoffs.

Clarkson was amazing again, leading the attack anew with 25 points against Korea. He worked extremely well with Standhardinger and Pringle, but the Koreans continued to be our nightmare in regional competitions. They defeated Gilas, 91-82, taking away our gold medal hopes.

Behind the brilliance of Clarkson, Standhardinger and Pringle, Gilas Pilipinas closed out their Asian Games campaign with dominant wins over Japan and Syria.

The team could only finish fifth, behind Chinese Taipei, Korea, Iran and China. But Clarkson and this version of the national team gave light to an otherwise dark time in Philippine basketball.

Right after getting back from Jakarta, Guiao had to immediately shift his focus to preparing for the 2019 FIBA World Cup Qualifiers. Gilas was to play in Iran and host Qatar in the first window of the second round.

There was still some momentum coming from the Asian Games stint. But it was the first window after the infamous brawl. This was where the repercussions were to be truly felt - from the suspensions of players to the closed door imposition on the game against Qatar.

Thankfully for Coach Yeng, he received the full support of the PBA and its teams. Players were made available and the league gave as much time as it could for the national team to prepare.

With 10 mainstays serving suspensions, it was time for a new-look Gilas Pilipinas. Guiao formed a 16-man pool that included returning national team members Greg Slaughter, Marcio Lassiter, Ian Sangalang and Scottie Thompson. It also featured the addition of first-time member Alex Cabagnot. And with Andray Blatche serving his ban, the team decided to roll with Pringle and Standhardinger as their naturalized players for the window.

The fresh mix brought about a different brand of excitement. Familiar faces were inevitably missed, but there was a fun mystery surrounding the new group.

Playing the Iranians on their home court, the new-look Gilas showed that they can keep in step with the Asian powerhouse. Standhardinger validated Guiao's choice to tap him by dominating the paint with 30 points and 12 rebounds. However, the Filipinos settled for an 81-73 loss. But they played great and showed a lot of promise for a team that had only been together for a short time.

Many expected the Philippines to be crushed by Iran. They've been one of the regions' best teams for the longest time. As for us, we were in the middle of one of our biggest setbacks. Yet, our brave men fought and fought hard.

Gilas tried to bring that same energy when they hosted Qatar at the Smart Araneta Coliseum. They had to, because no one else could have brought it for them. It was quite weird actually. Wherever Gilas Pilipinas plays in the world, they normally get the loudest cheers from the most passionate fans. Due to closed doors, there was none of that against Qatar.

Caught in an unusual situation, the Filipinos fell behind early with Qatar establishing a 17-point lead. It wasn't until the third quarter that Gilas Pilipnas woke up and got themselves back in the game. As soon as they did, they never looked back as the Philippines collected a 92-81 win over Qatar.

It was a great way to cap off a crazy stretch of Philippine basketball. From the brawl, to the Asian Games, to the first window of the second round, everything was coming one after the other. So much drama and so much confusion that you had to hold your breath.

At last, there was time to breathe. There was still another window ahead, but the two-and-a-half-month break was something that Coach Yeng and Gilas Pilipinas seemed to need to settle down a bit.

When the next window finally came, everyone was more ready than they were in the previous one. Suspended players were returning. Coach Yeng had a better grip of the team. Fans were ready to scream again as Gilas was scheduled to host Kazahkstan and Iran at the Mall of Asia Arena.

The first thing they had to cheer for the was the 20-man pool that Guiao pieced together. It drew a lot of superlatives - deepest, tallest, most talented. Some even called it "the best national team pool ever formed."

Fans salivated at the thought of June Mar Fajardo teaming up with Greg Slaughter in the front court. They mused over the possible combo of Jayson Castro and Stanley Pringle in the back court; and the idea of having Matthew Wright and Marcio Lassiter on opposite sides of the wings.

It was hard not to fall in love with the thought of having all those superstars in one team. In the national team, for that matter. But it had to translate on the court, especially because the rise of Japan had put a threat on the World Cup hopes of the Philippines.

As part of their preparation, the Gilas pool played tune up games against Jordan and Lebanon. They played each team twice, winning only one against Jordan. But there was no reason to worry at that point. While losing is never a goal, it was exactly why there was a need for those exhibitions. Gilas had lessons to learn before the approaching window. All Coach Yeng wanted was to get better with every game.

The true test came when they faced Kazakhstan. Gilas had already beaten the Kazakhs numerous times before. However, the visiting team had obviously prepared well and the Filipinos could not break the game open like they did in the Asian Games.

Kazakhstan repeatedly went with their pick-and-roll to open up opportunities for their shooters. Alexander Zhigulin, who came into the game averaging less than 10 points in eight games, erupted for 30 points on 6-for-12 three-point shooting.

With less than two minutes remaining, the Philippines took an 83-82 lead on a Pringle basket. The two teams exchanged advantages in the next few sequences. But the visitors made big plays down the stretch and eventually shocked Gilas Pilipinas with a 92-88 win on the road.

The entire MOA Arena was in disbelief. Our World Cup chances took a hit with the loss. However, there was no other option but to move on.

Iran was coming up in a few days. Good thing that Jayson Castro and Troy Rosario came back from their suspensions. Even better that Iran's big three - Hamed Haddadi, Sajjad Mashayekhi and Samad Nikkhah Bahrami - would not be lined up.

Things were looking good for Gilas. With Iran missing key players, the Filipinos were the favorites. They controlled the game in the first three quarters. However, things took a sharp turn in the fourth. Iran took over with Mohammad Jamshidi and Behnam Yakhchali powering a 15-2 run. Castro tried to fight back with his 19 points, but the tide had shifted over to the other side.

Iran completed a 78-70 come-from-behind win. The Philippines dropped to fourth place in Group F with a 5-5 record, a full game behind Japan's 6-4. Only the top three teams are assured of a ticket to the World Cup.

The year 2018 was a crazy year for Gilas Pilipinas. It was packed with a lot of drama, trials and hardships. It would not be insane to say that there were more lows than highs.

But 2018 also gave us great moments like Jordan Clarkson wearing "Pilipinas" on his chest, like Christian Standhardinger scoring against the bigs of China and Iran, like Scottie Thompson grabbing impossible rebounds over the towers of Asia.

Every year, Gilas absorbs losses and lessons on and off the court. But every year, they go out there to try and make every Filipino proud.

As always, para sa bayan.