Weeks before Gilas Pilipinas opened its campaign in the Clark window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers, Kai Sotto was ticking away the long hours of self-isolation in a hotel room due to quarantine protocols.
The 7-foot-3 stalwart was away from a basketball court in a time when he should be preparing non-stop for his much-anticipated men's national team debut.
It came as no surprise that Sotto had a hard time finding his bearings on the floor when Gilas swung into action against South Korea on Wednesday.
"You can see the fatigue, you know, he's only good for three to four minutes, he gets tired," head coach Tab Baldwin recalled of the promising teenager, who only rejoined the team in practice two days before the competition.
Compounding Sotto's struggles was the physicality of South Korea. With Ricardo Ratliffe, who goes by the Korean name Ra Gun-Ah, marking him right from the opening whistle, the 19-year-old found it difficult to establish his ground early on. It also did not help that the rest of Gilas was having a hard time as well, trailing by as much as 17 in the first half.
That, however, did not last long.
"The first couple of times he tried to score, you know, you could have easily called a foul, but it probably wasn't either, and he was very disrupted by, again, the physicality of Ratliffe," Baldwin bared.
"What you saw was him making an adjustment and he started to deliver back, to dish back the physicality, but most importantly you just saw the determination in Kai to make an impact in the game."
True enough, Sotto switched gears in the second half as he helped Gilas whittle away the sizable deficit and capture the thrilling 81-78 win in come-from-behind fashion. He imposed his presence down low, finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds.
"Well I think what we saw from Kai was we saw a very young player who wasn't really well prepared, but what a heart he has, you know," Baldwin beamed.
"I think it's pretty courageous effort by Kai, but we're gonna see a lot better basketball from him as we move forward. He's just a very good talent," he then continued.
"I think now we all see the kind of competitor that he is because he really wasn't ready for significant minutes in this game, and yet he gave us some great minutes."
Sotto and Gilas Pilipinas will try to keep their momentum going when they collide with Indonesia on Friday (June 18).
Ohmer Bautista is a sports journalist who has covered local and international sporting events in the Philippines. The views expressed are his own.
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