MANILA, JULY 25, 2007
(STAR) By Nelson Beltran - The SMC-Philippine quintet leaves for Tokushima, Japan today, ready to do battle against the best in the region in the FIBA-Asia men’s basketball championships in its pursuit of a dream stint in next year’s Olympic Games.

The Nationals are hopeful they could put to good use lessons learned in a grueling five-month training that included stints in the US, Iran, Thailand, Belgrade and Taipei as they seek to regain the title in the Asian championship – the region’s Olympic qualifier – which the country last won in Malaysia in 1985.

Coach Chot Reyes and the Nationals work out for the last time at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center this morning before heading to the airport for their 3 p.m. PAL flight to Osaka from where they would take a two-and-half-hour drive to Tokushima.

Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas top officials led by president Manny V. Pangilinan and board members PBA chair Ricky Vargas and PBA commissioner Noli Eala depart tomorrow. Michel Lhuillier and Yayoy Alcoseba, SBP officials from Cebu, will leave Friday.

The Nationals open their campaign in the 16-nation, nine-day tournament – formerly known as ABC Championship – against Iran Saturday. Defending champion China is up next for the RP team on Sunday then Jordan Monday.

The Filipinos need to finish first or second in this tough bracket, described by coach Reyes as “Group of Death,” to reach the quarterfinal round.

The Chinese were the gold medalists while the Iranians and Jordanians both losing semifinalists in the last Asian Games in Doha, Qatar last year.

But Reyes believed the Philippines has a good chance of beating these highly formidable teams.

“This team has come too far to be denied the chance to play in the Olympics,” said Reyes on the eve of their departure.

“We have made a great deal of preparation. All we need now is a stroke of good fortune in Japan,” he added.

Reyes is looking to dominate the backcourt battle to make up for their lack of ceiling. He was also relieved Fil-Am guard-forward Gabe Norwood was cleared to play for the Nationals.

Norwood, a George Mason U product, is expected to play a key role since he’s a versatile player who can play point, off-guard, wingman and even power forward.

Others likely to stand at the forefront of the RP team’s bid are Danny Seigle, Mark Caguioa, Jimmy Alapag, Jayjay Helterbrand and Dondon Hontiveros.

If Asi Taulava, Eric Menk, Kerby Raymundo and Kelly Williams are able to hold down the big men of the opposition, then they have made big contribution to the team. They would be facing seven-footers from the casts of the Chinese, the Iranians and the Jordanians.

Reyes will name his final 12 on the eve of the Iran match.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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