By Leobert Julian A. de la Peña
Despite the presence of NBA star Jordan Clarkson and the returning Kai Sotto, the Gilas Pilipinas men’s national basketball team still couldn’t solve the Lebanon puzzle and lost in a close encounter, 85-81, in the 2023 FIBA World Cup Asian Qualifiers.
Facing a hostile crowd at the Nouhad Nawfal Sports Complex in Lebanon, the Philippine team marched into battle oozing with confidence and immediately established a double-digit lead.
The duo of Clarkson and Dwight Ramos torched the Lebanese squad and were having an easy time banging bodies for a bucket that pushed their lead to 10, 19-9, with 1:53 remaining in the first quarter.
However, it only took one minute for Lebanon to trim the deficit to three, 25-22, and headed into the next quarter with multiple in-game adjustments.
Lebanon took control of the game in the second quarter through their 3-point shooting as they abused the Gilas big men during pick-and-roll actions.
The result became a nightmare for the stacked Gilas squad as Lebanon retook the lead, 37-39, at the 3:33 mark of the second frame.
Another thing that slowed down Gilas during Lebanon’s fiery run in the second quarter was their multiple unforced turnovers that rewarded several easy breakaway points for the hosts.
As things went shaky for Gilas in the closing minutes of the quarter, Clarkson took matters into his own hands that helped restore order after sinking a circus one-legged three-pointer that pulled PHL within two, 47-49, heading into the second half.
Both teams went toe-to-toe in the last two quarters and set up the game into an entertaining dogfight with Ramos carrying the offensive load after Clarkson got cold.
With five minutes remaining in the game, Gilas held to a four-point lead, 75-71, but a heartbreaking 14-6 scoring run by Lebanon made it difficult for PHL to get back into the game.
Japeth Aguilar kept Gilas’ hopes alive after tying the ball game at 78-all with three drained shots from the charity stripe but one man from Lebanon burnt the PHL alive in the last minute of the game.
Wael Arakji, the newly-crowned Asia Cup Most Valuable Player (MVP), put the entire Lebanon team on his back and scored the last seven points including the dagger trey that extended their lead to five, 83-78.
The Lebanese leftie top-scored his team with 24 points on 6/17 shooting from the field backstopped by Amir Saoud with 17 big points.
Meanwhile, Clarkson still put up an impressive FIBA debut for Gilas with 27 points, seven assists, and six rebounds.
Ramos also let his presence felt despite the loss and became Gilas’ second top-scorer with 18 points followed by Aguilar with 11.
Gilas will go back to the drawing board and will have two days to prepare against Saudi Arabia on August 29, this time, on their own floor at the Mall of Asia Arena.