(BULLETIN) By TITO S. TALAO - San Miguel-Pilipinas is not going to the Beijing Olympics in August next year. If it’s any consolation, neither is the Chinese team the Nationals will be facing Saturday for 9th place in the 24th FIBA-Asia Championship.

Nothing much is at stake in their second meeting in this tournament, and third overall this year, except the bragging rights between two dominant FIBA-Asia champions and the mutual respect they both crave.

"This no longer is a quest for an Olympic berth but a quest for respect," national coach Chot Reyes said after Wednesday’s rout of India.

And after dispatching off Kuwait, 89-59, yesterday to complete a three-game sweep of its consolation round assignment and arrange a return match with the dethroned Chinese, SMC-RP is raring to again pull the carpet from under the Mainlanders.

Coached by former Olympian Adiljan, China suffered irreparable losses during the preliminary where it was rudely eliminated.

Except for one or two players, members of this Chinese squad would return home Monday to relinquish their positions to their Olympic team, led by 7-5 Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, 7-0 former Dallas Mavericks forward Wang Zhizhi, and 6-11 Yi Jianglian, a first round pick of the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2007 NBA draft.

A victory tomorrow should serve as a soothing balm for both teams’ bruised ego. Kelly Williams and Jimmy Alapag returned to the active roster to play 24 and 14 minutes, respectively, signaling their readiness for the battle ahead.

Mark Caguioa, who hyper-extended his right shoulder in the game with Jordan Monday, sat out the game, however, and is unlikely to suit up for the return bout with the Chinese, who bowed to the Nationals, 79-74, Sunday.

"I would love to go after them again," said national coach Chot Reyes, referring to the two teams’ last game in the tournament where they shared the same fate.

Both had the material to make it all the way to the final, but ran into trouble with rugged Middle Eastern opponents questionably bracketed with them in the preliminary round and are now reduced to playing for the spoils instead of the title.

The rankings should prove meaningless in this case unless the organizing FIBA-Asia abandons an experimental grouping practice where only the top four finishers are distributed to each of the four groups and the rest of the 16 spots are filled via the drawing of lots.

The "S-format" was used in previous FIBA-Asia tournaments. The quirk of the draw brought together in one bracket China, Iran, Jordan – three of the top four Asian Games finishers – and the PBA-backed Philippine team, a coincidence loudly questioned by Mario Palma, Jordan’s Brazilian mentor, and now by Al Khadra Fahmi, the Kuwait head coach.

The Nationals had beaten Kuwait twice before in tune-up matches at the Sta. Lucia East Mall and the Caruncho Sports Center before the two teams flew to Tokushima, and they lost no time imposing their will again.

SMC-RP opened a 23-10 lead in the first quarter and never looked back, storming to a 34-point advantage in the fourth quarter for their second straight hassle-free triumph.

Fil-Am Gabe Norwood, sporting a new Mohawk haircut done by Kelly Williams, according to teammate Asi Taulava, had 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with five rebounds and five assists, reprising his 23-point performance against India Wednesday.

"Norwood put us in this position and we’re looking forward to meeting China and beating them again," Reyes said. "We’re saving our best for last."

Renren Ritualo added 13 points with three 3-pointers and Eric Menk had 10 points. Williams grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds, while Alapag issued three assists.

Taulava joined Reyes in the post-game interview and entertained the press with his geniality and good humor.

"We’re bored. That’s how bored we are," he said when asked how Norwood and Williams found time to do their hair.

Pointed out that he seemed to be in a good mood, Taulava, the team’s self-appointed comic, said: "This is my job, to keep everybody smiling."

Turning serious, Taulava said the game with China would be fiercely fought "even if the stakes are not too high."

The 6-foot-9 Talk ‘N Text center, who has been shrugging off an ankle sprain, expressed disappointment for SMC-RP’s failure to advance beyond the preliminary round, but added he was "happy" that the two other teams in their bracket are doing well in the quarterfinals.

‘"It only shows how tough our group was," he said.

It was at this juncture that the Kuwait coach made his sentiment known.

"The grouping was not fair," said Fahmi, a gentle-faced man with white hair and a soft smile, adding the losers after the preliminary "should have been allowed to go home. The players don’t want to practice anymore, they don’t want to play anymore. When you’re eliminated, then you’re eliminated."

Fahmi also insinuated the drawing of lots for the grouping, done two weeks before the tournament, might not have been done aboveboard.

"I don’t believe in the draw," he said. "They select the groups."

In completed quarterfinal matches Wednesday, Lebanon ripped Chinese-Taipei, 95-64, for its second straight win; Iran roared to its fifth consecutive victory from the preliminary by turning back Qatar, 95-87; Jordan stunned Kazakhstan, 82-73; and South Korea denied Japan, 93-83, pushing the host to the brink of elimination.

Consolation games saw Syria dumping India, 109-69; and dethroned champion China routing Indonesia, 102-47; and Hong Kong crushing United Arab Emirates, 87-64.

The tournament takes a break today.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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