Brownlee powers Gilas Men to comeback win vs. China; PH returns to Asian Games finals after 33 years
Published on October 5, 2023

HANGZHOU — A miraculous moment for Philippine basketball just happened in the 19th Asian Games, leaving the flag-waving hometown crowd at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium shocked and in utter disbelief at what they witnessed.

What they beheld was a sorcerer named Justin Brownlee waving a magic wand that banished host China from gold medal play 77-76 and transformed Gilas Pilipinas, a team hurriedly formed in two weeks time and burdened by lineup woes until the last minute, from a ragtag squad before they departed Manila to the status of sports heroes weeks into the Asiad.

“It was quite a miraculous win for us,” said Gilas coach Tim Cone.

“We didn’t look like we have any chance whatsoever, but I’m really proud of our players for continuing to battle and continuing to fight and find a way to come back in.

“Of course, we couldn’t have done it without Justin doing the thing he does.”

Brownlee, whose clutch baseline jumper against Iran in the quarterfinals saved the day 84-83 last Tuesday, tempered the adulation showered on him.

“We needed to battle back, and that’s what we did,” he said. “Just a great, great feeling.”

It will be the first Asian Games final for the Philippines since 1990 when the legendary Robert Jaworski coached an all-PBA team that had Ramon Fernandez, Benjie Paras, Alvin Patrimonio and Allan  Caidic to the silver medal in Beijing against a powerhouse Chinese team powered by Ma Jian, Shan Tao, Hu Wei Dong, Wang Fei and Wang Zhidan.

“The Big J, yeah, I remember that,” said Cone. “I started coaching in the PBA in 1989. And the Big, of course, was my hero growing up. I was a big Toyota fan. Eventually I coached against him and I’ve come full circle. Now I’m trying to live up to his legacy through Ginebra.”

The looming championship showdown against preliminary round tormentor Jordan on October 6 eclipsed Cone’s own bronze medal achievement with the Philippine Centennial Team in the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, beating Kazakhstan for third.

It also surpassed, at least in placing, Joe Lipa’s all-amateur Philippine team’s third place finish in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, beating, interestingly, Jordan in the fight for the bronze.

Reigning Asiad champion in the first four editions of the Games from 1951 to 1962, the Philippines last won the title when Cone was still 7 years old and still two years away, he said, from moving to the Philippines with his parents.

During the post-game press conference, Cone deflected much of the credit for the victory to the man beside him, who saved the Philippine campaign with 33 points, including 7 of 12 three-point shots, two of which kicked off the tumultuous fourth quarter and two more ended it in a blaze of glory.

The last one — an impossible step-back trey with two defenders on him — highlighted the epic comeback and drew an anguished cry from the stunned hometown crowd.

Despite receiving some of the hardest fouls in the competition and having to scrape himself off the floor on several occasions, the unflappable Brownlee still found a way to contribute 5 rebounds, 4 assists and a steal.

Locked in the grip of a rugged box-and-1 defense for most of the semis — the blueprint of which was provided  by Iran in the quarterfinals but not quite perfected — broke loose for a slew of three-point shots in the fourth quarter, including one from a clear meter away off the rainbow arc on the left that shot Gilas ahead 77-76 with 23 seconds remaining for what turned out to be the game-winning basket.

China called time and ran a play for Zhang Zhelin who missed a 3-point attempt with five seconds left. CJ Perez, whose driving layup with 1:59 to go kept Gilas alive 76-69, corraled the rebound, sparking wild celebration at the bench as Browlee tossed the ball high up in the air at the buzzer just before he got mobbed.

The nerve-wracking climax before thousands of Chinese fans who were preparing to applaud the home team’s return to the final only to be stop dead on their tracks by Brownlee and an unexpected source — backup point guard Kevin Alas, whose 3-pointer with 5:29 left shoved Gilas within 69-65 — was magical, to say the least.

And though two missed free throws and a referee-aided 5-second inbounding violation delayed Gilas’ last-ditch rally, something was put in motion that no longer could be stopped.

Two missed foul shots by China in the return play following Perez’s basket set up Brownlee for a short jumper 76-71. A timeout by the host team turned up empty, with an Ange Kouame steal, and Brownlee made them pay with his sixth 3-pointer from in front the Chinese bench 76-74.

Another clanged 3-pointer by China was hauled down by Perez and Brownlee nailed his seventh from the opposite side, sending the 15,000-seater venue gasping at the sight of Gilas taking the upper hand with 23 seconds left.

“I was telling Justin, ‘you do this for Ginebra, that’s awesome,” said Cone. “You do this in the international stage, in a big moment like this to beat the host team, that is unforgettable. People will remember that forever.”

Yet the beginning was ominous for Gilas.

Behind a strong start and the roaring presence of the hometown crowd, China looked headed for payback for its loss to Gilas Pilipinas in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

The Chinese team, which absorbed a 96-75 thrashing to the Philippines and Jordan Clarkson, who unloaded 34 points in the classification game early last month at the SM Mall of Asia Arena, made its first six shots and opened an 11-2 lead with precision shooting and the benefit of familiarity with the competition’s main venue.

A 13-2 run from 15-4 allowed Gilas to tie the game 17-all, igniting hopes of an upset in enemy territory. But China quickly doused the threat in the second quarter as it raced to a 20-point lead before settling for 48-30 at the half.

As feared, Browlee was caged in by a box-and-1, and was held to just five shots in the first half.

Gilas, which committed 10 turnovers, five more than the opposition, was 12 of 30 from the field (40 percent) halfway through the semis, missing all seven of its three-point shots. China, by contrast, went 16 of 28 (57 percent), with four triples.

The referees also sent China to the foul line for 17 free throws in the first 20 minutes where it made 12. The Philippines went 6 of 6.

This marks the first China will not be in the finals after having won 8 of the last 10 editions, surrendering the gold medal to South Korea in 1982 in New Delhi and 2002 in Busan, the year South Korean Lee Sang-Min broke the hearts of Filipino fans in the semifinals.

The victory arranged a showdown with Jordan for the gold medal at 8 p.m. on October 6. China and Chinese-Taipei battle for the bronze at 4 p.m.

As expected, Jordan breezed past Chinese-Taipei 90-71 in their Final Four match earlier after dominating the middle two quarters.

Jordan atoned for its last place finish in the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup by reaching the Asian Games final for the first time, having come in fourth twice, in 1986 in Hiroshima, Japan against the all-amateur Philippine team and in 2006 in Doha, Qatar against Iran. 

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the TNT Tropang Giga import, led the Jordanians with 20 points on 7 of 19 from the floor, while Ahmad Al Dwairi added 19 with 10 rebounds and John Bohannon 15 points with 15 rebounds.

Aside from dominating the boards 51-33, the Jordanians held the Taiwanese offense to 26 of 73 from the field and to only 9 free throws overall.

Jordan was 15 of 20 from the stripe.

Chinese-Taipei, which stunned Japan in the quarterfinals 85-66, was within 19-16 after 10 minutes before the Jordanians broke away and established their biggest lead at 30 points.

Three Taiwanese players were in double figures, but none over 12 points.