Year in Review 2018: Giant strides for Batang Gilas

Editor's note: the ESPN5.com team looks back at 2018's top stories in local sports with our Year in Review series.

While Gilas Pilipinas was making news both on and off the court for most of the year, their kid brothers quietly made progress in 2018, led by the seven-foot-one phenom Kai Sotto.

The Batang Gilas program was quite busy - and successful - this year, sending teams to two regional meets and qualifying for two world tournaments. First up was the under-16 team, which participated in the FIBA U16 Asian Championship in Foshan, China in April. At stake was a berth in the FIBA U17 World Cup in Argentina in June.

The team assembled by the SBP carried a load of expectations, majority of which rested on the young shoulders of the then-15-year-old Sotto. Philippine basketball had never seen anyone that tall at that age, who, as a bonus, actually had the moves. We've had tall teenagers before, but none as tall as Sotto was at 15. Although he made his national team debut in 2017 in the SEABA U16 tournament, the Asian Qualifiers would be his first real test against the best young centers of the continent.

As it turned out, he aced it. Sotto finished the tournament with averages of 16.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per contest. The hype was real.

The bigger news, though, was Batang Gilas' run to the semifinals, although they stumbled a bit in the group stage. After struggling to a 62-57 win over Southeast Asian rivals Malaysia, the boys were hammered by 30 points by eventual champions Australia. That dropped them into a playoff with Hong Kong for a place in the eight-team quarterfinals. Batang Gilas were never threatened, though, strolling to a 103-61 win as eight players, led by Sotto's 21, finished in double digits.

In the quarterfinals, they faced Japan, which was led by their prolific Japanese-American forward Chikara Tanaka, for a spot in the semifinals and one of four Asian tickets to the Worlds. Batang Gilas appeared to be in control, going up by 10, 69-59, with just 3:33 left when Tanaka went on a personal 11-1 run that knotted the score at 70 with just 32 seconds left. But RC Calimag saved the day for Batang Gilas, scoring on a short jumper with 2.3 seconds left to seal the win and punch their ticket to the World Cup. Sotto was magnificent, scoring 28 points to go along with 21 rebounds, while Calimag added 15.

Batang Gilas, playing without the injured Calimag, gave traditional powerhouse China all they could handle before falling 64-70 in the semifinal. Once again Sotto stood tall with 26 points and 21 rebounds, while Terrence Fortea added 18. The boys eventually finished fourth, losing to New Zealand 60-76 in the bronze medal match, but it mattered little since they were already headed to Argentina.

The Argentina tournament, where recent Manila visitor Jalen Green of champion United States was named MVP, was more of a learning experience for the youngsters. They nearly shocked the hosts, losing 71-74 in their final group stage assignment, before wrapping up their stint with back-to-back wins over Egypt and New Zealand to finish 13th among 16 teams, beating the 2014 team's 15th place finish. Once again Sotto shone on the big stage, averaging 16.4 points and 10.6 rebounds and catching the eye of some international scouts. Carl Tamayo was also quietly efficient with 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds.

New faces

A few weeks after their Argentina stint, Batang Gilas plunged into action again, this time for the FIBA U18 Asian Championship in Nonthaburi, Thailand. And this time, they brought along some new faces.

Sotto now had a new partner in the post, as the athletic six-foot-eleven AJ Edu came onboard. The backcourt was strengthened by the addition of six-foot point guard and Italian developmental club player Dalph Panopio. In the wings, promising forward Dave Ildefonso was added.

Like the U16 tournament, the top four finishers in the U18 joust would move on to the U19 World Cup to be held in July 2019 in Greece. And just like in the U16 tournament, Batang Gilas got the job done.

The boys impressively swept their group assignments, thumping Lebanon 75-53 behind Ildefonso's 19 and Edu's 17. In their next game, Edu and Sotto gave everyone a glimpse of the future with 16 and 14 respectively in a 92-49 drubbing of the UAE. They wrapped up the group stage with a stunning 73-63 conquest of China, as Ildefonso, Sotto, Edu, Panopio and Miguel Oczon all hit double digits.

Unlike their quarterfinal clash with Japan in the U16 tournament, Batang Gilas had a relatively easier time against Bahrain in the quarterfinals of the U18. There was a momentary lapse in concentration in the second period where they were outscored 23-6 to fall behind by eight at halftime, but the second half was all Batang Gilas as they outscored their foes 41-18 to win handily 67-52 and earn qualification for the U19 World Cup. Sotto and Edu were once again dominant in the paint, putting up 21-10 and 16-17 stat lines, respectively, to ensure the Philippines' first U19 World Cup stint in 40 years.

Eventual champions Australia put a halt to Batang Gilas' run, winning by a convincing 77-43. A chance for a podium finish went down the drain after China exacted revenge in the bronze medal match, 76-57.

Nevertheless, Batang Gilas are headed for Greece with some positives derived from their stint in Thailand. Ildefonso emerged as an offensive threat in the wings, and with a UAAP season's worth of experience tucked under his belt, he should be even more reliable in Greece. Same goes for Edu, who is currently playing in the US NCAA Division 1 at the University of Toledo. Sotto has been a man among boys in the UAAP juniors division, and if anything his dominance should be a boost to his confidence. He was also recently named the top under-18 Asian prospect by FIBA, further adding to his cred.

All these make for what should be an intriguing stint for Batang Gilas in Greece. Will they do enough to advance to the quarterfinals? Will they face Green and the mighty United States? Will Sotto continue to draw attention from scouts? July can't come soon enough.