It was a game billed as a battle between David and Goliath, and for almost 40 minutes, the undersized SMART-Gilas Pilipinas squad stood toe-to-toe against Iran’s Mahram, for the past two years the giants of club basketball in the continent.
In the end, however, the Philipine team ran out of ammunition for its slingshots, and the Iranians escaped with a thrilling 80-77 victory in the semifinal round of the 2011 FIBA-Asia Champions Cup at the PhilSports Arena on Saturday night.
Mahram, the two-time defending champions of this annual tournament, got big games from top gun Samad Nikkhah Bahrami and point guard Mahdi Kamrani, mainstays of the Iranian national team that has been champions in Asia since 2007. Bahrami finished with 19 points while Kamrani added 17.
As if that weren’t enough, Iran’s reinforcement also showed up to do some damage. 7’1” NBA veteran Cheikh Samb scored 17 points and was an imposing presence in the shaded lane, while former PBA import Chris Williams contributed 16.
But SMART-Gilas kept in step for most of the game, led by naturalized center Marcus Douthit’s 25 points and 13 rebounds and JVee Casio’s 21 points, which included 5 three-pointers. Iran never led by a double-digit margin throughout the game, in spite of its size advantage.
The game was, in fact, tied 62-all at the end of the third period, after Casio nailed his fourth three-pointer to beat the shot clock buzzer during SMART-Gilas’ final possession in the quarter.
But Iran opened the fourth quarter with a 15-7 run that gave the Filipinos their largest deficit in the game with 3:23 left, 77-69. Except for a free throw by Douthit, SMART-Gilas went scoreless in the next several plays, and with less than a minute left in the game, the nationals were still down 77-70.
Despite the dire straits, SMART-Gilas kept on fighting, and team captain Chris Tiu finally broke through with a layup with 43 seconds left. Marcio Lassiter forced a turnover on Bahrami in the ensuing play and fed Tiu for a three-pointer that cut the Iran lead to just two points, 77-75, with 32 seconds remaining.
Tiu fouled Bahrami in the next play, and the Iranian ace split his free throws. Casio went coast-to-coast for a layup that cut the lead to a single point, 78-77, with 11 seconds remaining.
SMART-Gilas was once again forced to foul in the next possession, and Casio’s foul on Bahrami was his fifth, disqualifying the Filipino playmaker from the game – rendering the nationals without their best outside shooter for the final play of the match. Bahrami made both free throws, and desperation attempts by Mark Barroca and Marcio Lassiter failed to find the target in the ensuing possession.
After the game, SMART-Gilas coach Rajko Toroman tried to put the game in perspective. “It was hard to lose the game,” he said. “But we have to know that these (Iran’s) players have a lot of experience. We are not an experienced team.”
“I’m proud of my players,” he added, expressing a sentiment shared by the 7,000-strong crowd who trooped to the arena to cheer on the national team. While the final scoreboard said that SMART-Gilas players were not winners, it would be hard to find anyone in attendance who would call them losers.
With the win, Mahram of Iran booked a ticket to its third straight finals appearance in the tournament on Sunday against the Al-Riyadi of Lebanon, which won 71-52 of Al-Rayyan of Qatar in the other semifinals matchup. SMART-Gilas and Al-Rayyan will play in the battle for third place at 4 p.m. on Sunday at the PhilSports Arena.