Year in and year out, Filipino basketball fans begged for Tim Cone to take over the reins of Gilas Pilipinas.

Last year, what seemed like a pipe dream finally turned into a reality when Cone, at long last, replaced Chot Reyes following the Philippines’ disappointing run in the FIBA World Cup.

Cone immediately turned the program on its head, leading Gilas in his first tournament back as the national team head coach to the country’s first Asian Games men’s basketball gold medal in 61 years.

Fast forward to this year, and Cone has continued to be everything that Filipino basketball fans could have asked for. In preparation for the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament (OQT), he lamented that “Almost winning is not good enough” after their 84-73 loss in a tune-up game versus Turkey earlier this week. This powerful message reinforced that this team is not just here for any other learning experience.


Gilas, who entered this tournament as the 37th-best team in the world, kicked off their OQT stint as a major underdog against sixth-ranked Latvia. Even the most optimistic Filipino fans held out hope for a win, yet Cone and his team somehow pulled off a victory that was not only “good enough” but also historic beyond comprehension.

The Philippines came into the match focused and caught Latvia, the host team, off-guard with an 8-0 run to start the game. These types of runs to open up a match are not too uncommon for a hyped-up underdog team. However, Gilas proved their quality throughout the match and put everyone on notice as they led all evening long. Their lead extended to 16 by the end of the opening period and even reached a high of 26 points by the third quarter.

When the final buzzer sounded at the Arena Riga, the Philippines walked away with a dominant 89-80 win over a stunned Latvia side. This upset victory was quite meaningful for Gilas even beyond the context of this OQT. It marked the country’s first win versus any European team since the 1960 Olympics when they beat Spain, 84-82, and moved them closer to their first Olympic basketball berth since 1972. 

Naturalized forward Justin Brownlee led the way for the Philippines with 26 points, three three-pointers, nine rebounds, nine assists, a steal, and a block. He thrived as the team’s go-to guy and was their stabilizer whenever Latvia mounted a run.

22-year-old Kai Sotto had a strong contest as well as he continues to thrive under the tutelage of Cone. The 7’3 center tallied 18 points on seven-of-10 field goal shooting along with eight rebounds, an assist, and a block. He even hit a three-pointer early in the third quarter, showcasing the progress he has made over the past year.

The physicality of Sotto and 6’10 June Mar Fajardo, who added 11 points and five rebounds, was a major advantage for Gilas. Sotto and Fajardo thrived as they shared the floor for most of the match with AJ Edu sidelined with a torn meniscus.

Over in the backcourt, Dwight Ramos and Chris Newsome shouldered most of the load for the Philippines. Ramos put up 12 points, two three-pointers, seven rebounds, and four assists while Newsome chipped in with 10 points, four rebounds, and a steal.

Although there is much to celebrate with this win, the OQT is far from over for Gilas. They are set to face Georgia, the world no. 23 team, in their second and final group stage match. As long as the Philippines does not lose by 19 points or more, they have a chance of advancing to the semifinal round of Group A. The last team standing following the single-game knockout semifinal and final rounds will then secure a berth in this year’s Olympic games.

There is still a long way to go for Gilas before they can entertain any thoughts of participating in this year’s Olympics. Nonetheless, this win is a major milestone for the program and a clear sign that the decision to bring in Cone was the right one.

Philippine basketball has long been in a chaotic downward spiral, but it appears that the dog days are over at last, and with Cone at the helm, the best is yet to come.