As the 2021 FIBA Under-19 World Cup heads to its last few games on Sunday evening in Latvia, a cycle also closed for Gilas Pilipinas Youth.
For the last four years, Gilas Youth experienced what some pundits called the renaissance of Philippine basketball.
Unlike past iterations of Gilas Youth, the Philippines was no longer considered as “the smallest” team in the competitions as it had the likes of Kai Sotto, AJ Edu, Geo Chiu, and Carl Tamayo.
And it all started during the 2017 SEABA Under-16 Championship.
It was only apt that Sotto’s national team debut came in Manila when the country hosted the 2017 SEABA Championships at the SMART Araneta Coliseum.
Also making their youth team debuts during the tournament are the likes of Chiu, Terrence Fortea, Gerry Abadiano, Raven Cortez, Forthsky Padrigao, Mac Guadana, and Bismarck Lina — all of whom were also pivotal during this cycle.
Dominant was Gilas Youth during the entire competition, sweeping the tournament with an average winning margin of 44.25 points per game.
It also introduced Sotto to a wider audience.
Even then-Gilas Men head coach Chot Reyes knew how bright the future of this batch was saying, “Hopefully, this group can stay together for a long period.
“If they stay together, they have a bright future but if not, this potential is going to go to waste.”
2018 FIBA Under-16 Asian Championship
By winning the SEABA tournament, Gilas Youth qualified for the 2018 FIBA Under-18 Asian Championship which was held in Foshan, China.
Besides being the first continental tournament of Sotto and the crew, this was also the first Asian Championship that featured Australia and New Zealand — both of whom Gilas faced in the tournament.
The SEABA team was kept intact for this tournament as it served as their reward for winning the regional meet a year ago.
The Philippines though had to go through the wringer to advance to the next round as it went 1-1 in Group B — a 62-57 win over Malaysia and a 52-82 beatdown at the hands of the Boomers. Gilas Youth vented its ire on Hong Kong, 103-61, to advance to the knockout stages that had four slots in the Under-17 World Cup at stake.
Gilas Youth needed an RC Calimag game-winner to stave off Japan in the quarters, 72-70, to punch their ticket to Argentina.
The young Pinoys though bowed to China in the semis, 54-60, and to New Zealand in the bronze medal match, 60-76.
Still, mission accomplished for the boys.
2018 FIBA Under-17 World Cup
For the first time, the U16 Asian Championship and the U17 World Cup were held in the same calendar year in 2018.
Of course, with such little turnaround, Gilas Youth still retained the core of the Asian Championship team with one addition.
Six-foot-seven Tamayo was called up for the Worlds.
Stacked though were the odds against Gilas Youth in the group stages as it was slotted with powerhouses Croatia, France, and host Argentina.
Placed last heading into the Group Stages, it faced Canada in the Round of 16, bowing to the North Americans, 62-102.
Mali also dealt Gilas a 59-95 defeat to fall to the 13th to 16th place classification matches.
Gilas Youth did not let those setbacks get in their way as it escaped Egypt with a 70-69 win before exacting vengeance on New Zealand, 73-51, to finish at 13th place.
Sotto was dominant in the tournament, norming 16.4 points and 10.6 boards, while Tamayo averaged 10.2 points and 6.8 rebounds.
2018 FIBA Under-18 Asian Championship
Work did not stop for Gilas Youth after the U17 Worlds as a month after the tournament, the FIBA Under-18 Asian Championship took place in Thailand.
There was a lot of pressure for this batch of Gilas Youth as it had been 40 years since the Philippines has competed in the Under-19 World Cup.
Sotto, Chiu, Cortez, Lina, Abadiano, and Fortea were called up once more. This time around, they were reinforced by Dave Ildefonso, Dalph Panopio, Rhayyan Amsali, and one Edu.
The debut of the Sotto-Edu combo did wonders for Gilas Youth in the elims, defeating Lebanon (75-53), UAE (92-49), and China (73-63) en route to a sweep.
The Philippines defeated Bahrain in the quarterfinals, 67-52, to book their ticket to the Worlds.
However, Sotto and co. were not able to land in the podium, falling to Australia, 43-77, in the semis, and losing to China, 57-76, in the third place game.
In his Gilas debut, Edu averaged team-highs of 14.2 points and 11.5 rebounds while Sotto had 12.7 points and 8.7 rebounds. Ildefonso also put up 9.8 markers per game while Panopio glued things together with 4.0 assists.
2019 FIBA Under-19 World Cup
The 2019 FIBA Under-19 World Cup is one of the biggest what-ifs in Philippine basketball history.
Gilas Youth armed itself with a strong team heading into the tournament with Sotto, Edu, Tamayo, Ildefonso, Panopio, Abadiano, Fortea, Chiu, Amsali, Migs Oczon, Xyrus Torres, and James Spencer.
However, just two minutes into their debut against host Greece, disaster struck Gilas Youth as Edu went down with an ACL tear.
It was a disaster from then on as Gilas played with just 11 boys the rest of the way.
Despite being short-handed, the Philippines put up gallant stands, including a 72-77 loss to Argentina in the group stages and a heartbreaking 70-76 defeat at the hands of New Zealand in their final game of the tournament.
The Coronavirus Pandemic
Sotto, Padrigao, and one Lebron Lopez, who at just 18 years old made his Gilas Men debut in Clark, could have been the pillars for one more cycle for Gilas Youth had it not been for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The duo could have led the next batch of Filipinos in the under-19 tournaments from 2020-21.
However, the continental youth cups were scrapped in 2020 due to health and safety concerns while FIBA decided to use the current rankings for the World Cup in Riga.
From Gilas Boys to Men
Four years since making their youth team debuts, some of the players have now been promoted to Gilas Men.
Just last year, Ildefonso made his debut in the Manama window of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers.
Sotto, Tamayo, and Chiu not only played in the Clark window of the Qualifiers as they also got a chance to play in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament-Belgrade.
For his part, current Gilas head coach Tab Baldwin has also been looking at bringing Panopio and Spencer back to the program.
Despite one window closing for Gilas Youth, another one had just begun for Gilas Men.