Croatia opened Group B play at the 2014 FIBA World Cup with a 81-78 overtime victory against a Philippines squad that posed a much bigger challenge than expected.
This year's tournament marks the first time since 1978 that the Gilas Pilipinas is taking part in the high-profile international showcase. They hosted that edition of the event, but lost all eight games. Their best result was a bronze medal in 1954.
Despite the extended absence, the Philippines put together a strong performance against a solid Croatia side. The European squad advanced from pool play four years ago and put itself on pace to do so again by opening with a victory. Its best World Cup result is also a bronze, coming in 1994.
Early on it looked like the game was going to turn into a blowout. Croatia burst out to a 23-9 lead after the first quarter. The efficient offensive effort, led by Bojan Bogdanovic, was in stark contrast to the struggles the Gilas Pilipinas had at the outset.
Derek Bodner of Draft Express noted the Croatian swingman, who's set to join the Brooklyn Nets next season, is not the player drafted in the first round by the Phoenix Suns in this year's NBA draft:
The Philippines weren't ready to go down without a fight, though. It was finally able to start finding a rhythm on the offensive end in the second quarter to start chipping into the lead.
There was a brief scare as Andray Blatche, who was getting a lot of looks against smaller defenders in the post, went to the sidelines to ice his knee. TJ Manotoc of ABS-CBN captured a shot of the center getting treated with ice:
He was able to return and ended up leading the team in minutes.
By halftime the lead was down to six at 37-31. PBA Recap noted a three by Jeff Chan sent the underdog side into the locker room on a high note:
The biggest difference was a better utilization of small-ball tactics. The Philippines used Blatche as the rock in the middle and then spread the floor around him. The shots started falling after the sluggish start and turned the game around.
It remained close throughout the third quarter with both teams going on the short runs. Croatia emerged with a eight-point leading heading into the fourth. The Philippines' Slam Magazine noted a key five-point swing to end the quarter:
The upstart squad fought back again, however. This time the Gilas Pilipinas were able to get back level thanks to an 8-0 spurt, highlighted by a pair of treys from Chan and Blatche.
As Basketball TV noted, the latter tied the game:
Blatche was granted citizenship earlier in the year so he could participate in the tournament. ESPN passed along his comments at the time about what it meant to play for the nation.
"The sport of basketball is huge here," he said. "It's in the heart of every Filipino and I love basketball, and so it's like we have that similarity."
After the Philippines grabbed the lead with just under three minutes to go, a clutch three from Krunoslav Simon tied it back up with two minutes to go. The sides traded basketball from that point forward, sending the game into overtime.
The tension was obvious early in the extra period. The offensive execution was sloppy on both ends and there were very few second-chance opportunities.
Bogdanovic took charge in the final minute. He made four straight free throws with a Philippine miss in between to give his side the edge. But once again the Gilas Pilipinas got themselves back in the game as Blatche nailed his third three of the game to pull back within one.
It wasn't enough, however. Damjan Rudez connected on both free throws and a last-ditch effort from the underdogs wouldn't fall. Blatche led all scorers with 28. Bogdanovic had 26 for the winning side.
Sportando noted the result:
First and foremost, the Philippines deserves a lot of credit for its effort. It could have allowed the game to turn into a blowout after falling behind early but fought every step of the way. The Gilas Pilipinas are going to be a pesky out in Group B.
As for Croatia, the narrow escape should serve as a wake-up call. It allowed the unheralded side back in the game and could never rebuild the lead. That type of play isn't going to work as the level of competition increases moving forward.
That said, getting the win is the most important thing and the Croatians were able to get it done in the end.