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Gilas Women hold off Thailand, win inaugural 3x3 gold

Gilas 3x3 Women captured the gold medal after beating Thailand in the finals. Ernie Sarmiento/ESPN5

The Gilas Pilipinas women's 3x3 took home the gold medal in the 30th Southeast Asian Games after defeating Thailand, 17-13, Monday at the Filoil Flying V Centre.

It was a historic achievement for Philippine women's basketball as the quartet of Janine Pontejos, Clare Castro, Jack Animam, and Afril Bernardino won the inaugural tournament on home soil.

"I'm just so happy for the girls, especially for women's basketball," said national team head coach Pat Aquino. "This is our first time to join 3x3 and we won gold."

In the gold medal round, it was Bernardino who took charge by scoring 10 points. She relentlessly attacked the basket in a variety of ways, showcasing her complete offensive arsenal. It was also sweet revenge for the Philippines whose lone loss in seven games came at the hands of Thailand - a 20-22 overtime defeat in the preliminary round.

The Philippines led by as many as 10 points, 16-6, but Thailand was able to get within four points in the final minute. The visiting squad went on a 5-0 run before Bernardino quashed the rally with a huge basket with a minute and a half remaining. Thailand was able to respond with a 2-pointer on the next possession but Gilas' defense in the closing moments ultimately secured the win.

In the semifinals earlier, Pontejos caught fire just in the nick of time to help the Philippines beat fourth-seed Vietnam, 21-12. With the score tied at 12 with a little over five minutes remaining, the Philippines went on a 9-0 run, sparked by back-to-back 2-pointers from Pontejos. After a basket from Castro and an and1-play from Bernardino, Pontejos sealed the win with another shot from beyond the arc.

The women's team finished the tournament with a total of six wins and only one defeat. They were driven not just by their competitiveness, but also a bigger purpose in fighting for their sport's recognition and relevance.

"I hope that with this win, with this gold medal, the girls' hard work will be recognized. We're so proud of them," Aquino said. "They love basketball. This was really for the country."

Aquino also believed that Bernardino's stellar play in the gold medal round was motivated by their desire to put women's basketball at centerstage.

"She really wanted to win this gold for us," Aquino said about Bernardino. "I know in her heart she really wanted to prove something not just for us, but to all of you guys, to notice us."

On her part, Bernardino responded to the challenge of uplifting her sport by putting on a show in the finals.

"As a woman basketball player, we also want women's [basketball] to get noticed for all the girls out there playing," Bernardino said. "After college, we don't have anywhere to go, just here in Gilas Pilipinas women. I hope that women's basketball gets noticed."

Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas president Al Panlilio said the team "captured the imagination of Filipino basketball fans and showed them the talent and heart of our Filipina ballers."

"Credit also goes to coach Patrick Aquino who has invested so much time and effort to develop the women's program," he said. "Three members of the team already saw action together in the 2018 FIBA 3x3 World Cup in Manila. The four were first tested in the 2019 FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup. The continuity of the program was as valuable as the hard work that was put in."

"I hope the team enjoys this victory but we still have more medals to win," he ended.

Gilas Pilipinas Women will carry their fight for recognition and attention as they aim for their first ever Southeast Asian Games gold in 5-on-5 basketball.