With Jack Animam back, Gilas Women eye Southeast Asian Games gold medal three-peat

Having missed out on the last Southeast Asian Games, Jack Animam is raring to play her part as Philippines look to claim a historic third consecutive gold medal in the women's 5x5 basketball tournament. Marlon Bernabe/ESPN5

When Gilas Women repeated as Southeast Asian Games champions in 5x5 basketball last year in Hanoi, one key player could only watch from the sidelines.

Center Jack Animam -- arguably the best Filipino women's player of the past decade, tore her anterior cruciate ligament while playing in Europe -- reducing her to the role of cheerleader as her teammates went on to successfully defend the gold medal.

Now, as the team bids to become the first country in 16 years to win three straight SEA Games gold medals in women's basketball, Animam is back to lead the charge in Phnom Penh when the 32nd edition of the Games opens on May 5.

"To be honest, I'm nervous kasi last year wala ako so parang sa sarili ko I feel like I missed a lot and then the feeling that they went through a battle na wala man lang ako doon even if I was on the bench," Animam told ESPN after team practice Tuesday.

"It was hard on my part. Every time I watched their games I wished I was there."

Gilas Women won their first-ever gold medal in Manila in 2019, sweeping the opposition. Two years later in Hanoi, they went 5-1 to retain the title. This newfound success has put the team squarely in the crosshairs of the competition and put even more pressure on them.

"Of course, there's always pressure," Animam admitted. "But I don't mind that pressure.

"I'm so excited just to be able to be here, to be able to play again with them, just to be on the same side with them. And I'm just excited coming into this 32nd SEA Games.

"There's a big target on our backs, but we don't mind that. If you don't have that target, it means you're not doing anything good. But we have that target.

"It means we're doing something, we're progressing every SEA Games. And the talent that we have in this pool is just wow. They really improved a lot."

Gilas Women coach Patrick Aquino believes their long preparation time will serve them well.

"I think we're almost 100% now," said Aquino. "We've been training already for almost three months.

"We've definitely improved. Everybody's doing their part. And I feel better that we have Jack back and everybody improving."

This year's edition promises to be one of the most competitive ever, with regular contenders like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand keeping their cards close to their chests and hosts Cambodia beefing up with the additional of naturalized players.

"They're hiding. We don't know anything about them," conceded Animam. "But we know Cambodia has three imports, two European and one American. Well, what do you expect?

"They're the home team, the hosts, so they're gonna do everything to get to the podium."

"Indonesia is hiding," Aquino added. "Malaysia and Thailand have been playing together for quite some time now. May liga sila."

The road to a three-peat will be a grind.

There will be seven nations participating in a round robin affair, with the top team winning the gold medal. Gilas Women will play six games in six days beginning on May 10, a daunting schedule that has them facing traditional favorites Thailand and Malaysia back-to-back on the last two days.

Animam says they're ready though, stating: "Every practice we treat it like game time. Always game time. And come the SEA Games, we will take it one game at a time."

"I know they're gonna be on our back because we're the defending champions," Aquino said. "We've been there already. I think if we do everything right then we're a better team than everyone else."

Aquino, long the women's national team coach and the most successful women's collegiate basketball coach of his generation, knows what a three-peat can do for the sport in the Philippines.

"Sana makapagbigay ng inspirasyon sa mga bata, na mapakita na it's not just the men's team but also the women's team who can do as well as the men's team," he stressed. "These girls have proven themselves as winners, as champions."

Yet despite the back-breaking schedule and the pressure of being the defending champions, Gilas Women know that there's one thing going in their favor.

"I can say I'm back," Animam said. "I'm finally back."