February 28, 2024

Laban, Pilipinas!: Top 10 victories in Philippine men's basketball history, ranked

Laban, Pilipinas!: Top 10 victories in Philippine men
Art by Royce Nicdao

The Philippines has seen its fair share of heartbreaks in the international basketball stage. In fact, there were times when the gap between the country and the rest of the world felt like a gulf that could not be bridged. The basketball gods, though, haven't been that cruel as to deny the hoop-loving nation moments of glory. While they these have come few and far between, the Philippines has had some success in the global stage, too.

Here are 10 of the most memorable ones:

Honorable mention: Belangel buzzer beater against South Korea

Gilas Pilipinas hadn't beaten South Korea since 2013 (more on that later) when the rivals met again in 2021 for the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. The squad, then led by coach Tab Baldwin, finally got one back when SJ Belangel sank a buzzer-beating triple in Angeles, Pampanga to topple Korea by three points. Four days later, Gilas proved that the first win wasn't a fluke as it beat South Korea again to finish Group A of the qualifiers without a loss.

10. Victory over Kazakhstan to qualify for the 2019 FIBA World Cup

The Philippines punched its ticket to the 2019 FIBA World Cup by literally taking the last spot in the qualifiers behind a victory over Kazakhstan. Andray Blatche was a monster that game, delivering 41 points,12 rebounds, four steals, and two blocks.

9. 2023 SEA Games redemption tour

This feels like ages ago, but it has only been five months since the national team took back the Southeast Asian Games gold after losing the crown in the previous edition. Gilas had to survive a subpar basketball facility, a slippery playing court, sweltering heat, a preliminary round loss to host country Cambodia, a lot of online vitriol, and the controversial naturalized lineup of the host team. The Philippines had the last laugh, though, beating Indonesia in the semis and toppling Cambodia in the finals.

8. Paul Lee's cold-blooded free throws versus China

The Angas ng Tondo sealed his status as a cold-blooded killer in the 2014 FIBA Asia Cup battle for bronze between Gilas and regional giants China when he sank three nerve-wracking charities to help the national team escape with the win. Down by two points with time winding down, Lee pump-faked two Chinese defenders to draw a foul while taking a three-point shot time expired. All alone in the free-throw line with no time left, the Gilas guard calmly sank one free throw after another. Not even the hostile home crowd in the Wuhan Sports Center Gymnasium in China could rattle Lee as he went 3-for-3 to steal the bronze.

7. Philippines beats USA in 2012 Jones Cup

Sure, that Team USA wasn't the "A" team. It wasn't even the "B" or "C" or "D" team. But it was still Team USA, and the beat it en route to winning 34th William Jones Cup. LA Tenorio stood the tallest that game, willing the national team back from a 14-point hole, sinking the go-ahead jumper with 19.9 seconds remaining, and grabbing the defensive board on the ensuing possession. The Americans still managed to heave a last-second shot but didn't go in as Gilas claimed its fourth Jones Cup title, 76-75.

6. 1998 Centennial Team bronze

The national team filled with PBA greats and legends finished with the bronze medal in Tim Cone's first crack at the Asian Games behind a 73-68 win against Kazakhstan. It wasn't the ultimate goal, all right, but it was sure better than the Philippines' medal-less Asiad campaign in 1994.

5. Asiad four-peat

Once upon a time, the Philippines ruled Asian Games basketball in its early years. In fact, Caloy Loyzaga-led national teams reigned supreme in four straight Asiads from 1951 to 1962. The 1962 tournament was particularly sweet. That time, the gold was given to the team with the best record, and on what was essentially the last game of the tournament, the Philippines took on Japan in a battle of unbeaten teams. The Philippines won easily, 101-67.

4. First FIBA World Cup win in almost four decades

If anything, the 2014 FIBA World Cup was proof that the Philippines could go toe-to-toe against the world's best. Gilas only lost by a margin of 5.75 points against Croatia, Greece, Argentina, and Puerto Rico. But the national team led by Jimmy Alapag wouldn't settle with "almost" in its last game of the tournament. While out of contention already, Gilas entered its fifth and game against Senegal like it was a championship match and did not disappoint by bringing home the country's first FIBA World Cup win in almost four decades.

3. FIBA World Championship bronze in 1954

Sixty-nine years ago, the Philippines was the third best basketball team in the world led by Loyzaga, who was named part of the All-tournament team. The Philippines fell to eventual champion Team USA in the final round as well as to Brazil, but slayed Uruguay, France, Canada, Israel, and Formosa. To this day, that podium finish is still the country's best ever finish in the prestigious hoops showpiece, and it might take many more years before it can be replicated.

2. Breaking the curse of Korea

"Pingris with the rebound, and the Curse of Korea is about to be broken here inside the MOA Arena!"

This by far is the definitive "puso" game. The history, rivalry, context, and atmosphere aligned for the country in this historic day. With a chance to return to the FIBA World Cup after 36 years, Gilas Pilipinas vanquished the South Koreans at home soil in the semifinals of the FIBA Asia Championship despite naturalized big man Marcus Douthit missing long stretches of the game due to injury. Marc Pingris, Japeth Aguilar, Ranidel de Ocampo, and Jimmy Alapag stepped up in his absence, taking turns in giving Korea that undeniable puso brand of basketball.

After 40 grind-it-out minutes, Gilas had booked its ticket to the 2014 FIBA World Cup. 

1. Asian Games gold after 61 years

This year's Asian Games gold medal takes the top spot due to the sheer amount of adversity Gilas had to overcome. Cone, who counts that 1998 bronze medal finish he had with the Centennial Team as his biggest disappointment, barely had a team weeks before the Asian Games and the organizing committee in China wasn't very welcoming to the Philippines.

Then, the team lost to Jordan in the group stage and almost had an epic meltdown in the quarterfinals against Iran. But Justin Brownlee took over in the semifinals to lead Gilas to an epic comeback over host country China, before dishing out a team effort to exact revenge against Jordan and win the country's first gold in 61 years.

So, yes, the Philippines has had some memorable moments in the world stage of hoops. And there may be more if the basketball gods could give the country a break here and there and if the stakeholders of Philippine basketball can figure out a sustainable program for the long term. Until then, these victories will come few and far between.