Philippines is once again king of Southeast Asian men's 5x5 basketball after the 'Redeem Team' trounced hosts Cambodia 80-69 on Tuesday in the gold medal game at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Phnom Penh.
Justin Brownlee once again led the way with 23 points, while Chris Newsome had his best offensive game of the tournament with 16, less than 24 hours after he could barely move from the heat and exhaustion following Gilas Pilipinas' semifinal win over Indonesia.
The win not only gave the Philippine delegation its 56th gold medal of the Games, it also avenged a contentious loss to the hosts in the group stage -- the first time the Philippines has lost to Cambodia in men's 5x5 basketball at the SEA Games.
More importantly, it restored the men's basketball crown to where it usually belongs in Southeast Asia after Indonesia ended the Philippines' 31-year dominance with a shock win last year in Hanoi.
Playing in front of a crowd that included Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, Gilas fell behind 5-0 to start the game but quickly regained its bearings and began to pull away in the second quarter behind good defense that limited Cambodia to just 11 points in the quarter.
The hosts made a few runs in the second half, but Gilas had a reply each time.
It is the 19th gold medal for the Philippines in men's 5x5 basketball in the SEA Games, one of the most dominant runs in the biennial tournament in any discipline.
Yet this was perhaps one of the most challenging of the 19 golds to win, second only to the rag-tag team that somehow won it all in 1993.
An unlikely crew were handed the job almost by default after several big names backed out. Practices were few and sporadic.
When they arrived in Phnom Penh, they discovered that the hosts had stocked their team with five naturalized American players, and that the court was literally coming apart at the seams.
Through it all, the players had to deal with an oven-hot venue and lack of a suitable practice facility. Then the team lost Calvin Oftana in its very first game after he slipped on the linoleum cover and strained his calf.
After they lost to Cambodia by double digits -- in what Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas chairman emeritus Manuel V. Pangilinan called an "ignominious defeat which will be etched deeply in infamy" -- social media was rife with calls for coach Chot Reyes' head.
In that match, a few Gilas team members resented a late timeout by the hosts and let the opposition coach know about it after the game.
It wasn't the best of times.
Yet the team stayed focused, and afterwards Reyes was pleased to have proven his critics wrong.
"We did it. We did it," he told a group of Filipino reporters.
"I don't know if there's anything else left to say. I know a lot of people doubted this team after the first time that we lost. But I didn't tell you the first words in the dugout after we lost. I said, 'This was the loss that we could afford.' And I thought we needed that loss actually."
Gilas showed they had done their homework in the rematch.
Cambodia were held to their lowest point total of the tournament and scored just 47 points over the last three quarters. After burying Gilas with an avalanche of 3-pointers in the first game, the hosts connected on just 4-of-19 from beyond the arc this time.
"We just kept our focus," Reyes said. "The players did a hell of a job, they stuck together. They kept this team of five imports, six imports to below 70 points. That was great defense. In the end, it was our defense that got us through to this gold medal."
That and Brownlee, whose 23 points was the most by any player from both teams.
After a rough start, the naturalized Barangay Ginebra import finally found his groove in the two knockout games.
"We all know that in that (first) Cambodia game, that wasn't the real Justin Brownlee," Reyes said. "But when we had the real Brownlee, then you saw the result.
"We just wanted to make sure we knew we had the game to beat Cambodia, but we had to play our game. We were worried when we didn't have Calvin and we didn't have Justin. But when we had everyone in, we knew we had the team and the game to beat Cambodia."
There's a bit of personal redemption for Reyes, who has had to live with the ignominy of the loss to Indonesia for nearly a year.
It's also hard to believe, since he's been coaching for over 30 years and handled the national team numerous times, that this is actually his first SEA Games gold medal.
"I came here, I envisioned this, I visualized it," he said. "But I didn't make it happen. It was the players. The players made it happen. It was their effort, it was their willingness to give."
As satisfying as this outcome was, there was one thing Reyes didn't get to do.
"Sarap sana mag timeout nung huli," he jested.