The stage was set for the Philippines on their home court.
In front of a FIBA World Cup record crowd of 38,115 in Bulacan – most of whom were there supporting Gilas Pilipinas – they looked destined to steal the show on day one.
But in the end, unfortunately, they were not there to take the plaudits from their adoring fans.
That’s because their opponents, Dominican Republic ended up playing the show’s true villains, but did so not by playing dirty or resorting to cheating like baddies do.
Instead, like true professionals, they played patient defence, took their chances when needed, didn’t play to the head-splitting roar of the Philippine Arena crowd and they utilised their main weapon of choice Karl-Anthony Towns, en route to an 87-81 win.
Take nothing away from the FIBA World Cup hosts, they played admirably, shot the ball brilliantly, 48 percent from the field to be exact – compared to Dominican Republic’s poor 39 percent – and the majority of the game was close. Anyone could have won this emotionally charged contest.
On the big stage, surrounded by a cauldron of Gilas Pilipinas fanatics, the Dominican Republic remained calm and despite their field goal woes, collected 17 offensive rebounds compared to just three from the hosts saw out of the game plus with the game still in the balance, a big three-point play from Victor Liz with 1:36 remaining to gave his side an 84-79 lead and the Dominicans would never be caught.
It was a heartbreaking blow for the Philippines, who after that, were reckless and a technical foul on Scottie Thompson, mixed with Jordan Clarkson fouling out on an offensive foul sealed the deal.
“I’m a little upset,” Clarkson, who had a game-high 28 points for the Philippines, said.
“The game is physical. Some things didn’t go our way towards the end. Playing physical is part of the FIBA game, we understand that. We had a chance to win the game. The crowd was amazing. They supported us. I’m upset that we lost but we have more games here.”
“It wasn’t good enough for us,” added Thompson. “JC (Clarkson) fouled out in the last few minutes and that hurt. We need to stay positive no matter who our opponent is and stay hungry.”
And they will have to feast in their next game against Angola on Sunday. The African nation are also winless after the first round of play following their defeat to Italy, so that encounter is already a must win in order to stand a decent chance of making the second round.
Delight for KAT and the Dominican Rep.
Having Karl-Anthony Towns at your disposal is always something you need to take full advantage of. And the Dominicans did just that. No less than four Philippines bigs were unable to stop him and the Minnesota Timberwolves star ended with 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite leading is team to victory, the emphasis on Towns’ post-game was humble, paying homage to the co-hosts and its incredible people.
“(Philippines) are hard working, play fast, play hard,” he said. “You can see the pride they have for their country. I respect them tremendously. They are just a great team. We just found a way to stay disciplined. My teammates were amazing. I am so happy that we are able to get the first game in the World Cup in the books with a W.”
A win will certainly make any team happy. But for 37 minutes, it was neck-and-neck. Both teams didn’t give the other an inch but Dominican Republic coach Nestor Garcia was confident in his team, especially in the latter stages.
“The game was tight for 37 minutes but we know that we always play good in the last minutes. We stayed calm because we know when it’s our moment,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest tournament opener in their history is done and it ended with a win. Already for the Dominicans, they stand a decent chance of qualifying to the next round, but of course, never say never in international basketball.
A win over Philippines was big as it was in their own backyard, imagine the delight if they were to knock off Group A favourites and the FIBA World Cup sleeper team Italy on Sunday.