WHILE Kai Sotto played likely his final match with Ateneo, another Kai is turning heads at the NBTC.
Fil-Am forward Kainoa "Kai" Ballungay shut down his namesake when FilAm Sports USA knocked off 5-seed Ateneo, 90-67, in the Supreme 16 round of the 2019 Chooks-to-Go NBTC League National Finals.
Ballungay made life hard for Sotto everytime the latter got the ball in the paint, while also forming a potent offensive quartet together with teammates Jalen Green, Brandon Wilson and Jeron Artest as the USA selection returned to the quarterfinals.
And the 17-year-old admitted that he prepared hard for this duel against the Blue Eaglets.
"Going in the game, I know I had to make a name for myself and show that there’s another Kai in town," he said with a smile.
"Respect to him. It’s an honor to play against a recognized player like him. It’s all love," he said, finishing the game with 16 points, nine rebounds and three steals in the win. "I just did my best to defend him up and give him all I have."
Ballungay's contributions were integral in leading FilAm Sports USA back to the quarterfinals for the second straight year.
But more that the repeat entry to the top 8 of the NBTC, the 6-foot-7 winger relishes the chance to strut his stuff in his paternal grandmother's homeland.
"This is definitely the biggest venue I've played in, in front of all of these fans. I love it here and the support they're showing is great," said Ballungay, whose father Miles lives in Hawaii but traces his roots in Ilocos Norte.
The NBTC stint also served as a chance to Ballungay to prove to himself that he belongs in the same conversation with his famed peers despite him committing to a Division II school in Cal State Stanislaus after graduating from Kimball High in Tracy, California.
"Coming into the tournament, I really feel I have a chip on my shoulder knowing that there are headliners in the team like Jalen (Green) and Jeron (Artest)," he bared. "I'm trying to make a name for myself coming here. Back in the States, I feel I was kind of overlooked because I signed with a Division II school in Northern California."
If there are questions then, there's no more now as Ballungay has slowly established himself as one of the key cogs for coach Bong Ulep and FilAm Sports USA.
Though he's already made a committment back in the United States, Ballungay isn't closing his doors on the possibility of lacing it up here in the country soon.
"Coming here, the possibility of playing here is definitely an opportunity," he said after gaining interest from colleges like La Salle and Ateneo, just to name a few.
But for now, Ballungay's goal is to lead FilAm Sports USA to the Division 1 title, a pedestal that has yet to be reached by any international team.
And he knows that for the USA selection to do that, they must continue trusting each other.
"Just having that confidence in myself and in my teammates, it all starts with them," he said. "I believe they helped me get on this platform in order to get my name out there and get the recognition for myself. So for me, I just want to repay that with us getting the W. Whatever coach needs me to do, I'll be there."