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Photograph by Joey Sanchez Mendoza for the Daily Tribune @tribunephl_joey KAI Sotto and Gilas Pilipinas are determined to kick off their campaign in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers on a high note.

After ticking off a box in its bucket list with a victory in the 19th Asian Games, Gilas Pilipinas starts a new journey when it battles Hong Kong in the first window of the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers tonight at the Tsuen Wan Stadium in the former British colony.

Game time is set at 8 p.m. with the Filipinos looking to take the first step to Asian cage supremacy that could eventually lead them back to the Olympics for the first time since 1972.

With Tim Cone, the genius behind their Asian Games conquest last year, as full-time head coach, Gilas boys are expected to go all out despite having only 11 players due to the injuries suffered by big men June Mar Fajardo and AJ Edu.

Fajardo, the seven-time Most Valuable Player in the Philippine Basketball Association and a three-time World Cup campaigner, boarded the flight but will be reduced into a mere cheerleader after suffering a calf injury in Game 4 of their Commissioner’s Cup best-of-seven finals encounter against Magnolia last week.

Edu, on the other hand, is still nursing a meniscus injury that he suffered while playing in Japan. His spot will be taken by Japeth Aguilar, who decided to put their retirement from international action on hold in a bid to help the team being handled by his Barangay Ginebra mentor.

Aguilar will join fellow Kings Scottie Thompson and Jamie Malonzo as well as Justin Brownlee, who was given the green light to see action after getting undergoing self-suspension for use of a banned substance in the Asian Games.

Other PBA stars in the rosters are CJ Perez, Calvin Oftana, and Chris Newsome while Japan-based standouts Kai Sotto, Carl Tamayo and Dwight Ramos as well as collegiate star Kevin Quiambao will also see action.

Brownlee said their game against Hong Kong will be a good gauge if he still has what it takes to dominate following three months of inactivity.

“I don’t expect much in my first game back, but definitely, I’m ready to put behind the suspension experience I had,” Brownlee said.
“Just the feeling of playing once again and representing the Philippines, it’s a great feeling.”

But winning against Hong Kong will not be easy.

Despite being ranked 119 in the latest International Basketball Federation ranking, Hong Kong remains dangerous with former Bay Area Dragons standout Duncan Reid at the attack zone.

Reid, who was part of the Dragons side that pushed Cone, Brownlee and the Kings to the limit in the best-of-seven finals of the Commissioner’s Cup last year, has been with the Hong Kong national team since 2013 and is expected to conspire with So Chi Lok, Leung Shiu Wah, Hon Tin Chi and Ricky Yang.

Cone said punching a ticket to the FIBA Asia Cup in Saudi Arabia next year is just the start of their journey to glory.

“This is the start — the FIBA Asia Cup,” Cone, who owns 25 PBA titles, said.

“Everything should be in progression. To qualify for the FIBA Asia Cup, we need to do good in the window events.”

“Our vision was clear about making the Olympics — either in Paris or LA. To get to the Paris Olympics, we need to win the Olympic Qualifying Tournament. To get to the LA Olympics, we need to be the best Asian team in the World Cup and to make the World Cup, we need to be better in FIBA Asia. It’s a process.”

Gilas want to make a good early impression and hope to win their first game in Hong Kong before returning to Manila to host Chinese Taipei on Monday at the Philsports Arena in Pasig City.

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