FOSHAN, China -- Rookies Robert Bolick and CJ Perez weren't supposed to be here.
The last additions to the Gilas Pilipinas pool are also two of the youngest, as the pair was tapped after a number of veterans declined an invitation. Many Filipino fans were anxious about their inclusion -- fearing they were too inexperienced and would crumble under international pressure.
One game and one lopsided loss into Gilas' 2019 FIBA World Cup campaign, they have proven to be a bright spot in an otherwise dark time for Philippine basketball.
Italy was already in command against Gilas on Saturday when Perez was given a shot to play. Almost immediately, he put his head down and attacked. When Bolick was given the chance, he did the same.
Perez led the team in scoring alongside Andray Blatche with 15. Bolick, who finished with six points, struggled from the field but his aggressive play led to multiple trips to the free throw line.
Speaking to the media after the game, they were visibly upset.
Perez did not feel that leading Gilas in scoring in his first World Cup game was something to smile about. Bolick did not care about his highlights as the loss consumed him.
"Bad trip," Bolick said before quickly thanking the media and walking into their dugout.
It's understandable that neither had many words. This was the biggest game of their careers so far and the result was no longer in question just 10 minutes into the match.
For team captain Gabe Norwood, seeing Perez and Bolick that frustrated was a great sign.
"It just shows that they care," he said. "It means that even against a team as good as Italy we should not be losing that way."
The day after the loss, Perez had started to process his thoughts.
"What coach Yeng Guiao said really stuck to me," Perez said in Filipino. "We play the same sport as they do. If we do what we practiced and if we give it our all, we'll be OK whatever the result might be."
Silver linings in defeat
CJ Perez and Robert Bolick delivered solid outings in their FIBA World Cup debut.
A bigger challenge awaits Gilas Pilipinas tonight against Serbia, a team that is not only among the tournament favorites, but who blew out Italy in a tuneup match a few days ago.
Bolick remains unfazed, though.
"I don't care who they are," Bolick said in Filipino. "Whoever our opponents are, we do not fear them. This is just basketball. For sure, they have the advantage with NBA players but we just have to play harder. I just want to win. It's for the country. It hurts to lose like that."
Perez and Bolick's journey to China have been intertwined for a long time. Both were collegiate stars -- Perez for Lyceum and Bolick for San Beda. Bolick won three NCAA titles with the Red Lions, two of which came at Perez's expense.
The two entered the PBA together in the 2018 Rookie Draft where Perez was selected first overall pick by Columbian Dyip and Bolick went to NorthPort Batang Pier at No. 3. They have helped lift their struggling teams in the past few conferences.
Perez has made the Dyip fun to watch, while Bolick has turned NorthPort into contenders.
For Bolick, the motivation to play better in China is not for just himself or the team.
"People don't know how much our coaches did to prepare us for that game," Bolick said. "Two of our coaches even flew to China earlier to scout Italy but us players, we did not do our part to protect them.
"Against Serbia, I'm going to play for the country but for Coach Yeng as well. ... Our coaches deserve to get a good game from us, win or lose."
Bolick and Perez did not expect to be here this early. Neither played during the qualifying rounds and had circled 2023 as their debut tournament. But the two have already bought in and are eyeing the future.
"Like Gabe, it would be a huge achievement if I can also play for Gilas for 10 years," Perez said in Filipino. "But I know there is still a lot of work to be done for me to deserve that."
"As long as I have no injuries, if I'm healthy, playing for the country is my priority," Bolick said. "Playing basketball is only for a short time. And this is only once every four years. Especially for 2023, count me in."