Kai Sotto dominates as Gilas crushes Hong Kong

Kai Sotto dominates as Gilas crushes Hong Kong
Kai Sotto emphatically dunks the ball during Gilas Pilipinas' game against Hong Kong at the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers. —PHOTOS COURTESY OF FIBA.BASKETBALL

Gilas Pilipinas ushered in their new era in spectacular fashion.

In the team’s first FIBA-sanctioned game with coach Tim Cone at the helm, the Philippines overwhelmed Hong Kong, 94-64, to kick-start their campaign in the first window of the 2025 Asia Cup qualifiers at Tsuen Wan Stadium in Hong Kong on Thursday night.

Playing without two of their key rotation big men, the Filipinos banked on Kai Sotto’s unmatched size and Justin Brownlee’s ever-reliable presence to secure the resounding win.

Seven-time PBA most valuable player June Mar Fajardo and Japan B. League Asian import AJ Edu watched from the sidelines as Gilas aced its first test against the feisty Hong Kong side.

Their presence in the hardcourt was not missed much, however, as the 7-foot-3 Sotto anchored Gilas with great effectiveness, punishing Hong Kong in the paint and converting the home team’s fouls into seven of his 13 points.

Nobody on Hong Kong’s side was able to match up with the Gilas center, who snagged 15 rebounds to complete a double-double.

Duncan Reid—Sotto’s positional matchup—was limited to a measly five boards.

Cone’s decision to bring in Barangay Ginebra’s Japeth Aguilar as Sotto’s back-up also paid off in a big way. The veteran big man provided six points, three rebounds, and two steals in 11 minutes of play.

Gilas’ clunky start

The giant 30-point lead aside, the game was not as cut and dry as the statistics indicated. As dominant as the victory was, the Filipinos were off to a sluggish start, allowing Hong Kong to hang around in the first 15 minutes and change the game.

“We were quite surprised,” Cone admitted during the post-game press conference. 

“I thought we came out a little tentative. But in the second half, we kind of relaxed a little bit. [We] played better, defended better, and got on a little bit of a run. Our crowd gave us a bit of momentum, and we were lucky to get a run and take it through”

Brownlee finished with a team-high 16 points, along with seven rebounds and seven assists. It was a respectable production, but there’s no denying that he looked far from the hero of the 19th Asian Games.

“He really struggled at the beginning of the game,” Cone said of the Gilas naturalized player.

“You can tell he had a little bit of rust. He hasn’t played a game in like four months, so he had a lot of rust to brush off, and that’s why we continued to play him in the fourth quarter.”

“It was really great to see him in the second half really get his rhythm [back].”

Sotto ready

Kai Sotto, Gilas Pilipinas
Gilas Pilipinas celebrates its win in the first window of the FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers.

Sotto, who many are touting as the best basketball prospect the country has ever produced, is slowly settling in with the Yokohama B-Corsairs of the Japan B.League.

As Yokohama’s starting center, the former Ateneo Blue Eaglet is finally showing flashes of the player his fans hope he would become—a dominant scoring presence in the paint and a matchup nightmare for rebounders.

Just before he flew home to Manila, the 21-year-old Sotto logged back-to-back outstanding performances in consecutive games against the Chiba Jets. In his third game as a starter earlier this month, he produced 18 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of play. 

As if determined to prove that his performance wasn’t a fluke, the Filipino sensation outdid his previous outing, tallying another double-double with 26 markers and 11 boards in the very next game.

“I’m happy that I’ve been used more in my last two games,” Sotto said. “I have always had a huge belief in myself every time I step onto the court. So every time I play, have full confidence in what I can do.”

Sotto believes he only needed the increased minutes of play to prove what he can truly bring to the table. With Fajardo and Edu out for this window, an increased playing time he shall receive.

“I wanted to play for Gilas, but the doctor told me to focus on recovery,” the 6’10 Fajardo said during the national team’s send-off event on Monday. “I’m trying my best to speed up my healing process so I can join the team as soon as possible.”

A fixture of the Gilas program since 2013, Fajardo sustained a calf injury in the recently concluded PBA Commissioner’s Cup finals. 

Edu, on the other hand, has been on the shelf since he tore his meniscus in December. Gilas’ breakout star during the 2023 FIBA World Cup promised he’d be ready to suit up once the Olympic Qualifiers roll through. But for now, the only support he can provide the team is of the moral variety.

This means the pressure is on the nationals’ young big men to provide sturdy interior defense and reliable scoring in the paint. Much of these responsibilities will now fall on the shoulders of youngsters Carl Tamayo and especially Sotto.

“We’re missing two key players so the rest will have to step up,” Sotto told reporters earlier. “Everybody’s up to the task, so I’m confident in our team right now.”

Short big-men rotation

With a very short big-men rotation, Cone expects Tamayo and even Kevin Quiambao, to a certain extent, to play out of position for some stretches.

“We love our size even though we will be missing June Mar and AJ Edu,” said Cone, the PBA’s winningest head coach. “You think about that—that’s 6’11 and 6’10 that we won’t have.”

“[Aguilar] is a godsend because we really lost a lot of size [after] losing June Mar and AJ, so Japeth being able to back up Kai is going to be really big for us,” Cone said. “Carl Tamayo is our third-string center, so he might have to play out of position. But these are the things that happen in any basketball team.”

Gilas will lock horns with Chinese Taipei in a home game on Sunday, Feb. 25. With more size than Hong Kong, the No.16-ranked basketball team in Asia is expected to present a tougher challenge for Gilas.

If Sotto is right, the upcoming showdown against the Taiwanese should serve as the ultimate showcase of his development.

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