The 19th Asian Games bore witness to an epic showdown as the Gilas Pilipinas squad faced a fierce Iranian team. In a roller-coaster battle that saw Iran erode a 21-point lead, June Mar Fajardo and Justin Brownlee emerged as the heroes, securing an 84-83 victory in the closing moments. This heart-stopping triumph propels the Nationals into the men’s basketball semifinals at the Zhejiang University Gymnasium on Tuesday, October 3.
Iran, reminiscent of the relentless Persian desert sun, mounted a spirited comeback led by Matin Aghajanpour’s impressive three-pointers in the fourth quarter. Mohammandsina Vehedi and Navid Razaeifar also showcased their long-range prowess, putting tremendous pressure on the Gilas’ defense. Iran seized the lead twice, first at 81-80, and then at 83-82.
Yet, in the face of adversity, Gilas rose to the challenge. June Mar Fajardo’s crucial putback gave them a one-point lead at 82-81, and Justin Brownlee’s tough baseline jumper extended it to 84-83, with only 41 seconds remaining.
The climax of the match hinged on a three-point attempt by Aghajanpour, taken just before the final buzzer. The shot missed its mark, sparing the hearts of Gilas fans both in the arena and back home.
Reflecting on the heart-stopping finale, Coach Tim Cone shared, “I was literally almost right behind him so I could see the trajectory, it was going left. When he released it, I knew it was a miss. It was just a matter of ‘can we get the rebound?’ We did, and they chased us around but couldn’t get a foul off us.”
While losing a 21-point lead was unexpected, Cone acknowledged the unpredictable nature of international games. He stated, “In the international game, things can turn on a dime, and this did in the fourth quarter. Luckily we had a big lead. We should have never put ourselves in that position, but that’s the way these kinds of games are.”
Justin Brownlee emerged as the leading scorer for Gilas, amassing an impressive 36 points. However, the Iranian defense, employing a box-and-one strategy, stifled his movement in the second half, limiting his impact.
Looking ahead, Gilas faces the host nation, China, in the semifinals. China dominated South Korea with a scoreline of 84-70 in another quarterfinal matchup, though it fell short of the highly anticipated showdown at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center.
A spot in the gold medal match awaits the victor of this critical Final Four clash scheduled for 8 p.m. on Wednesday, October 4. This contest holds added significance as it marks exactly four weeks since the Philippines, propelled by Jordan Clarkson’s 34-point explosion, triumphed over China in the classification phase of the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
The loser of this showdown will contend for the bronze medal, a feat that would replicate the Philippines’ third-place finish in the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games, a milestone also achieved under the mentorship of Coach Cone.
While thoughts of bronze may linger, the team’s sights are firmly set on a gold medal. A potential rematch with Jordan looms on the horizon, contingent on both teams reaching the finals.
Gilas stands on the cusp of a historic achievement. Jordan was leading Saudi Arabia comfortably, and their next challenge will come against either Japan or Chinese Taipei in the semis.
Reflecting on the matchup with China, Coach Cone acknowledged, “We also played China in the semis 25 years ago. But it’s a totally different ballgame now, so we’ll see.”
For a quarter and a half, Gilas appeared poised for a comfortable victory. However, a lapse in ball possession led to a dramatic shift in momentum. Despite the scare, the Nationals demonstrated resilience and composure, ultimately sealing a hard-fought win.
Justin Brownlee aptly summarized the roller-coaster ride, stating, “It feels great. Never say die, right? We just kept fighting.”
June Mar Fajardo, whose two crucial free throws held Iran at bay 80-76 with 2:17 remaining, contributed 18 points along with 8 rebounds. Scottie Thompson added 11 points and 6 rebounds to the impressive display. The Philippines now stands on the brink of a historic achievement, poised to take on China in a semifinal clash that promises to be nothing short of spectacular.