The Gilas Pilipinas national team goes up against powerhouse Australia in Melbourne today at the start of the second window of the FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers. The odds are against the Chot Reyes-mentored squad who are facing the 10th-ranked team in the world minus ace playmaker Jayson Castro who’s nursing an ankle injury.
Even with Castro around, Gilas remains the solid underdogs. Over the years, the Boomers have become one of the best basketball-playing nations in the world. They wound up 12th in the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and was 10th overall in Turkey back in 2010.
Ever since the FIBA integrated the countries from Asia and Oceania, Australia has remained unbeaten against their regional rivals, topping Iran at the 2017 FIBA Asia Cup, 79-56, in the Finals. They also beat China, 97-71, en route to the championship.
Curiously, Australia has yet to reach the Final Four of any FIBA World Cup staging, which started in 1950 (then called FIBA World Championship). On the other hand, the Philippines is still considered the most accomplished Asian team in event history, earning the bronze medal and a podium finish in the 1954 tournament in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.
Their match will be their fourth in a FIBA-sanctioned tournament. In 1978, when Manila hosted the tournament and the national team earned an automatic slot in the quarterfinals, the Philippines lost to the Aussies, 97-52, in their fifth game in the Final 8. The two faced again in the battle for 7th place, with the Aussies repeating, 92-74.
The Philippines was represented by an all-amateur team led by former UE hotshot Mon Cruz, Ateneans Padim Israel, Steve Watson and Joy Carpio, and many-time national player Bokyo Lauchengco. The best players of the country couldn't play as they were already part of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA), and professional cagers were then not allowed to play in FIBA tournaments.
But in the 1974 staging held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Filipinos broke the ice by nipping Australia, 101-100, in a hotly-contested game. Bogs Adornado, Manny Paner, and Ramon Fernandez led the winning charge, tallying 52 points.
Jimmy Mariano added 12 markers, Big Boy Reynoso chipped in 10, and Sonny Jaworski had 8 points in a balanced attack. Australia was led by the prolific 6'2" guard Ed Palubinskas who sizzled with 39 points, including 15 out of 16 from the free throw line. Palubinskas once held the world record for most total points scored in the Olympics. It was eventually toppled by Brazilian Oskar Schmidt at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Both teams ended up with 2-6 records, but Australia finished 12th and the Philippines, 13th because of the quirks of the FIBA quotient system.
There have been a couple of occasions when the Filipino fans were able to witness some games played against their Australian rivals, though. In 1977, the Ramrod Blocks team played in the 1977 PBA Invitationals and ended up second to the last, winning only two of their seven games against the import-reinforced PBA teams. Another team, the Emtex Sacronels of Brazil, finished second against the Toyota Tamaraws in the same tournament.
More recently, the Melbourne Tigers, two-time champions in Australia's National Basketball League (NBL), visited the country in 2002 for a two-game exhibition series versus the Philippine Team bound for the Asian Games, Busan, South Korea.
The Tigers were led by the legendary Andrew Gaze. In the first game, the nationals lost, 80-76 in a close battle. But in the second game, the hosts, sponsored by Selecta back then, came roaring back, defeating the Tigers, 94-91, after a booming buzzer-beating three point shot by Eric Menk at the right corner.
It remains to be seen if Gilas can match the efforts of their 1974 counterparts, especially in hostile territory. Despite not having the services of several key NBA players like Ben Simmons, Patty Mills, Joe Ingles, Matthew Dellavedova, and Andrew Bogut, Australia are the odds-on favorites to finally deal the Philippines its first loss in the FIBA Asia qualifiers. And with Castro out, the scenario became even more difficult for Reyes.