Gilas Pilipinas Women head coach Pat Aquino was surprised by the number of people waiting for him and his team inside the Mall of Asia Arena press conference room.
"Wow," Aquino said as he entered the jam-packed room full of reporters. Being used to only a handful of newsmen covering women's basketball in the UAAP, he was gladly taken aback with how much attention Gilas Pilipinas Women got in the SEA Games.
The Philippine women's basketball team made headlines Tuesday night after claiming the country's first gold medal in the biennial tournament. An emotional Aquino, alongside Jack Animam and Afril Bernardino, faced the media with a mixture of relief and joy following their historic achievement.
"We've been dreaming since day one when we handled the national team that hopefully, we make it great for women," said Aquino. "Now that we're here and we achieved the goals that we're supposed to do, my hope is to keep it growing."
The gold medal was undoubtedly a crowning glory for the Gilas Women's program but for the players and coaches, the hardware meant so much more. Being hailed as the new queens of Southeast Asia signified that optimistically, bigger things are in store for women's basketball in the country.
"We're not stopping here. I think the girls really want to prove more," said Aquino. "Not just the way we played today, but their attitude towards the game. It's simply incredible and having them with me, playing for the country, I'm really proud of them."
Gilas Women had to go through Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, all of which are powerhouse teams in SEA Games basketball, but they also had to fight another battle off the court -- the struggle for relevance, attention, and support in their very own country. Women's basketball has always taken a back seat in Philippine sports, but the national program has fortunately made great strides in trying to change that.
In Tuesday's gold medal match, thousands of Filipinos came to support and watch the women's team make history. It wasn't a full house compared to the men's finals later that night, but the number of people already outmatched all the previous games they had.
"For us, even if there were supporters or not, we're still going to play for the country. But we didn't expect there were so many who were going to watch today," said Animam. "It was loud every time we shot the ball or got the steal, or the rebound, the shouts were there.
"It was a bonus for us. It was a bonus for our confidence and our morale that a lot of people were appreciating what we were doing, so we just kept doing it. And this last game for the gold, this isn't just for us. It's not only for ourselves but to everyone who has supported us throughout the years."
For Aquino, one concrete way to help women's basketball gain more attention is by having a professional league in the country.
"Well, that's the dream that I want," said Aquino, who became the head coach of the national team in 2015. "I really want women's basketball to grow. Hopefully, a sponsor will come in next year and help us out to have a league of their own for women's basketball. I think they'll be proud of it."
After giving the first gold medal for the Philippines in the SEA Games, the work continues for Gilas Pilipinas Women. Hopefully, the support for them will also continue as they represent the country in other tournaments.
"Let's not just let this pass by. Once this is over, it goes away. We'll all focus on other things. Hopefully, we could achieve more by supporting us," said Aquino.
"To all those who supported, I really want to thank them. Hopefully, we continue and we grow. Next stop, FIBA Asia. Hopefully, that's our target."