Smart Gilas Pilipinas put up a gallant front in the absence of naturalization candidate Jamal Sampson but just couldn’t find a way to match up with Al Jalaa of Syria’s size and dropped a 76-90 setback early Friday at the start of the import-laced Dubai Invitational here.
Egged wildly by a thousand-strong Filipino crowd at the Al-Ahli Sports Complex, JV Casio, only on his second real basketball game since being sidelined by a contusion he sustained in an exhibition game with Alaska, carried most of the fight for the country as he unleashed a 23-point outburst.
But the absence of Sampson, a 6’11” former NBA veteran who is being eyed by RP for naturalization hoping to give it inside muscle, proved too much for the Filipinos, who were just no match against the taller, bigger Syrians, who played with three American reinforcements.
Filipino-American Marcio Lassiter, Mac Baracael, Japeth Aguilar and Jason Ballesteros tried to plug the gaping hole by chipping in 11, 11, 10 and 10 points, respectively, and providing the needed rebounds and interior defense but Sampson was just too big a void to fill into.
Curiously, Sampson complained of pain on his knees and decided only not to play during the pre-game warm up.
“It’s always very difficult for us to play this game because all these teams, they have three Americans,” said RP’s Serbian coach Rajko Toroman. “We played without Sampson and it shocked us in the beginning.
“This competition, if we play without a big guy, we will not do too much,” he added.
Truly, Smart Gilas was jarred by the game time decision by Sampson not to play and started out sluggish and fell to a 0-13 deficit at the start of the game.
“He said had some sort of knee injury but I was thinking he’ll solve his problem. It shocked us that’s why we started 0-13 and after that it was very difficult to return to the game,” said Toroman.
Bernie Atienza, Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas deputy executive director, said they would send Sampson to the doctors for re-evaluation, hoping he could suit up against Champville of Lebanon Saturday (1 a.m. RP time).
“Officially, we’ll have to verify tomorrow (Saturday). We’re still hoping he (Sampson) could play tomorrow and the rest of the games here,” said Atienza, who is the highest SBP official here since executive director Noli Eala was expected to arrive only Friday afternoon.
Smart Gilas captain Chris Tiu said he was disappointed with the development.
“Of course it was disappointing because we were hoping the team will be complete. Beforehand in games against Qatar and practice games here, we knew who would play,” said Tiu.
“This is really our problem, rebounding and our interior defense and then we’ll just know that he (Sampson) will not play. It wouldn’t have been better if he said it earlier and not decide during the warm up.
“It was really disappointing but on the positive side, everyone really fought hard. Balle (Ballesteros) was undersized but he really fought hard as well as the whole team to show that we have hard and we will fight whatever the odds are,” he added.
The Filipinos, however, didn’t give up easily as Aguilar went into a dunking spree and jammed in baskets four times to help them get back into the game.
And after skipper Chris Tiu and Baracael drained a pair of booming triples, RP finally equalized, 29-all midway in the second quarter.
But it turned out the Filipinos’ last hurrah as the Syrians closed the quarter with a 14-5 exchange to go into the break with a 43-34 lead.
And then the Syrians went into attack mode in the third canto as they pounded it inside to lead by as much as 26 points twice, the last at 74-48 to end the period.