Before authoring a massive comeback against South Korea on Wednesday and before laying the groundwork that made Philippine basketball's biggest clutch moment of the new decade possible, Gilas Pilipinas first had to endure an enormous punch from their rivals.
The metaphorical pain was palpable. Just ask Dwight Ramos, the 22-year-old guard who carried the offensive load on his shoulders for most of Gilas' win to open the third window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. As excellent as he was throughout win, Ramos' early miscues reflected the team's problems in the first half.
Ramos committed Gilas' first turnover with less than a minute into the contest against a tough and physical defense. He would make another later in the frame and Gilas ended the first quarter with five turnovers while managing just one assist in a dismal 12-21 start.
It did not get any better in the second period, where Gilas lagged by as many as 17 points against South Korea. They eventually whittled down the deficit to eight, tightened their handle, and fared better overall by committing just two more turnovers and against five assists before halftime.
"Yeah definitely, it was a wake-up call for me," said Ramos, who finished with a team-high 16 points to go with five rebounds, two steals and a block. "Just the physicality of their players. They really pressured me, and I just don't think I was ready for that."
South Korea dictated the game for the first 10 minutes and surprised the Filipinos by the pressure they brought on every play -- from the simplest of entry passes and handoffs, to the cuts and pin downs that failed to unclog a stale Philippine offense.
Gilas shot a paltry 38.7% (12-for-31) from the field in the first half -- including a 1-for-11 start to the game. The Philippines also made just 3-for-13 3s during that span against South Korean, who hit five on the same number of attempts while shooting well above 50% from the field.
"We were shocked at the beginning of the game with the physicality of Korea, and it gave us a hard time. And we didn't have a good first quarter," head coach Tab Baldwin said.
Yet there was a sense both within the team and among the spectators that Gilas could successfully clean up its act and turn it around in the second half. These kids, after all, had to learn how to grapple and overcome adversity.
"We talked about it in halftime and we just started grinding and we started trying to respond to the physicality and tried to hold our own," Baldwin said. "And I think once we adjusted to the physical animosity, we just had to respond with our own form of physicality. Once we made that adjustment, then it was our guys who were probably the tougher team on the court."
Gilas used the little momentum that they had late in the second frame to flip the script on South Koreans in the third quarter, where they shot 8-for-17 from the field and hit 2-of-6 3s. South Korea cooled in that stretch and made just 5-of-19 after the break.
Schematic adjustments were key, of course, as well as the timely spark provided by Ramos, Kai Sotto, Carl Tamayo, and Ange Kouame. Baldwin says a lot of that comeback was due to Gilas finding their legs just as the South Koreans lost theirs.
"I got to give credit to the boys on the team as well for their fitness work, you know, because I think Korea got tired and I think a little bit of their physicality and intensity wasn't there as much in the latter stages of the game as it was in the early stage," Baldwin said.
South Korea responded and took a 75-70 lead with under two minutes and a half remaining. The Philippines managed to get back on top with fewer than 10 seconds remaining, but Lee Hyunjung's timely 3-pointer tied the game and Gilas faced the prospect of overtime.
SJ Belangel prevented that from happening.
Baldwin said the shot -- an off-balanced beauty of a buzzer-beater off of his pivot foot -- was a play borne out of necessity after South Korea pulled the plug on the initial action. Tamayo was meant to be the first option under the basket, but South Korea switched Ra GunA to cover and blocked off the middle. Ramos had to look for another pass to avoid a five-second call.
"So Dwight took the first available option, and that was SJ, and SJ just made a play," Baldwin said. "So I mean yes, he was an option, but really just an entry option just to get the ball inbounds. ...I mean it's, it's one of those ones that you see every now and then and everybody enjoys it, except the other team."
While Baldwin said Gilas didn't achieve any semblance of offensive cohesion even in an improved second half, he did laud his team's effort in passing a huge test.
"I don't think there's any question that these young guys are going to compete," Baldwin said. "There is always going to be a question about how our talent can stand up to an opponent's talent, or how our lack of experience can stand up to the experience of another team, but not their heart and not their desire to fight."
In the long run, this Gilas win will be viewed either as an outlier or a step toward a bigger objective. It all depends on the progression that this very young core will take and how they will manage to weather bigger challenges -- including the two remaining games against Indonesia and this very same South Korean team on Friday and Sunday.
"I'm super excited for our team. I mean, we have all young guys, they're all excited to be here." said Ramos. "... We are all looking for more improvement. I know we won the game today, but I still think that everyone's thinking about how to improve and thinking about the next game now."