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Olympic dream to fuel Gilas Pilipinas when facing South Sudan, China

A window to its Olympic dream has remained open for Gilas Pilipinas. Now it must get through.

Rhenz Abando PHOTO BY RIO DELUVIO

The identities of its classification phase opponents finally known after Wednesday's Group B games in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023 at the Smart Araneta Coliseum, Gilas Pilipinas launches its bid for a spot to the 2024 Paris Olympiad against South Sudan on Thursday, Aug. 31, and Asian Games powerhouse China on Saturday, Sep. 2.

Victories in both matches, coupled with results favorable to the Philippines in the classification assignments of other Asian teams – especially Japan, which already secured a win over Finland in the Group Phase earlier – would provide the Nationals with the strongest chance of earning passage to France next year as the best-placed Asian team in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023.

And it all begins with African qualifier South Sudan – a tall and dangerous matchup for Gilas Pilipinas.

The Big Dome will be awash in blue when the Nationals face the Bright Stars of Sudan at 8 p.m., needing a critical victory for a momentum-driven clash with Team Dragon of China two days later, also at 8 p.m.

The Philippines-China game, expected to fill the Smart Araneta Coliseum to the rafters, is seen as a prelude to their Asian Games encounter next month in Hangzhou.

South Sudan finished at third spot in Group B with a 1-2 record after absorbing a 115-83 drubbing from world No. 6 Serbia in the first game, while China finished last with a 0-3 card after getting thrashed by Puerto Rico 107-89.

Asked after the first game Wednesday about the prospect of facing Gilas Pilipinas and the hometown crowd in the classification, South Sudan head coach Royal Ivey declined to comment pending the result of the Puerto Rico-China game.

Dut Juok Kacuol led the way for South Sudan with 21 points while Nuni Omot added 17. Curiously missing in action for the Bright Stars was its leading scorer, Carlik Jones, who, after averaging 23 points in the first two games, was limited to just three against the Puerto Ricans.

He, however, remains a dangerous opposing player for the Filipinos, as he is expected to quickly bounce back from the subpar performance.

China, on the other hand, was spearheaded by Zhao Rui who finished with 16 points, while Zhao Ji Wei added 14. Naturalized player Kyle Anderson (Li Kaier) and former NBA big man Zhou Qi both had lackluster performances for Team Dragon in the loss, but they are still expected to carry the load for China when it plays Gilas Pilipinas.

The direct confrontation between the two Asian squads is also seen to have serious implications in the race for the continent's lone Olympic spot with the Philippines and China, both with 0-3 records, needing victories to at least catch up with Japan.

China's Anderson, of the Minnesota Timberwolves and whose maternal great grandfather was Chinese, sees a tough fight against Gilas Pilipinas.

“It's going to be an intense environment; they're a really good team and they've got some good players over there and have the crowd on their side,” said the former UCLA Bruins player in the US NCAA. “It's gonna be a tough but fun environment.”

Anderson disclosed that Jordan Clarkson – the Filipinos' main man and a product of Tulsa and later, Missouri – was a collegiate rival and is an off-the-court buddy.

“Yeah, been playing against him since college, so it's always fun to go against him,” said Anderson. “He's [also] one of my friends off the court, so it's fun to compete.”

The Philippines' last appearance in the men's basketball competition in the Olympics was in 1972 in Munich, Germany, with players like Freddie Webb, Danny Florencio, Bogs Adornado, Jun Papa, Manny Paner, Yoyong Martirez, Tembong Melencio, Narciso Bernardo, and Jimmy Mariano. The Nationals beat Senegal 72-68 in pool play, Egypt by forfeit in the semifinal, and Japan 80-73 for 13th place.

Gilas Pilipinas has a scheduled shootaround from 12 noon to 12:50 p.m. Thursday at the Big Dome.

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