SMART Gilas Pilipinas coach Rajko Toroman has nothing but only praises and gratitude for a team that recently bagged a bronze medal in the 21st Dubai Invitational at the Al Ahli Indoor Stadium.

Smart Gilas Pilipinas coach Rajko Toroman faces sportscribes on the weekly Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum at Shakey's-UN Avenue branch in Manila. (Sunnex/Virgil Lopez)

“I am very proud of the players. The sacrifice they have made for the team is something I haven't seen for the longest time. They played with great pride and heart,” said the Serbian coach at the weekly sportscribes forum at the Shakey's-United Nations Avenue branch in Manila.

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The 54-year-old professional basketball mentor said despite the fact that the Philippines was "the smallest and youngest team," his wards compensate the lack of height with heart and team spirit.

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“We are small, we are young but we have a great heart. We are playing for the country. The intense support of the Filipino community in Dubai was unforgettable,” Toroman said of the national developmental squad composed of collegiate amateur standouts.

“This is not a professional team. You need more than size to win the game,” added the prolific mentor who steered Asian powerhouse Iranian National Team to an Olympic berth in 2008.

Team captain Chris Tiu meanwhile can't hide his admiration for the developmental squad he leads.

“Even if we didn’t make the finals, the lessons learned, the experience gained is something that really can be very useful for us in the future and coming tournaments,” said the former King Eagle and reality show host.

“We went to Dubai not expecting to go this far...Despite falling short at the end, it was a very fulfilling experience to realize that we can compete with top players in Asia. It was a big boost for the morale for the team,” the 24-year-old Tiu added.

Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP) executive director Noli Eala also expressed happiness over the team's performance that salvaged bronze against towering teams with far more experienced players.

“Very happy and I just wish the consistency of winning goes on,” Eala said.

The former team manager of Smart Gilas said the Nationals will participate in overseas tournaments and practice games starting on March, for a total of 60 games.

Eala said these tune-up games are in preparation for the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.

In 2006, the country failed to send a representative in the quadrennial meet after the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) slapped a two-year suspension in 2005 due to a leadership squabble.

The country's best showing in the past 20 years was in the 1990 Beijing Asian Games where the Robert Jaworski-led squad placed second after host China.

The Philippines last won the gold in the 1962 Jakarta Asiad.

Height issues

Toroman however do not discount the need for a "big man" inside the court as he is seeking a balance in the team line-up.

“We could had been champions if we had an inside player with the size of (PBA player) Asi Taulava,” he said in jest after leading an all-Filipino crew in the bronze medal face-off.

Eala meanwhile can't hide his disappoint over 6-foot-11 Jamal Wesley Sampson.

“Obviously, he’s not willing to risk for the national team. Jamal is the big man we need inside the court. It's frustrating, he could have given to us a big help,” he said.

The 26-year-old former Los Angeles Lakers member refused to play in the quarterfinals against Al Riyadi and Al Jalaa claiming he has a hurting knee.

“We really thought that he's the one but the trip in Dubai was the proof that he's not,” Eala added who passed the scouting chores to Toroman for his possible replacement.

But Toroman said "big men" like former Ateneo towers 6-foot-9 Japeth Aguilar and 6-foot-7 Rabeh-al-Hussaini should step up, whose services were hardly felt during the tournament.

“We need to improve these guys. We don't need anybody else," he said.

Last Sunday, the GMA network-sponsored team avenged its only loss in the elimination round of the tournament by defeating Jalaa of Syria 107-98 to grab third place honors.

On that game, Marnel Baracael exploded for 26 points while Zamboanga hotshot Mark Barroca unloaded 18 of his 21 points in the final period for Gilas, which converted 18 straight free throws in the closing minutes and scored 40 points in the fourth.

Jamal's absence also prompted Toroman to rely heavily on the 6-foot-7 Jason Ballesteros Baracael in the paint along with Aguilar and Greg Slaughter.

Iran’s Mahram defeated Al Riyadi of Lebanon, 85-67, to clinch the crown in the championship match. Samad Nikkah Bahrami was named Most Valuable Player.

Former La Salle hotshot JV Casio was also adjudged the best point guard of the tournament. (Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)