Ateneo’s Arvin Tolentino stands out in first test

Naveen Ganglani

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Arvin Tolentino had an impressive UAAP debut with Ateneo on Sunday, hinting at greater promise to come for the Blue Eagles

SOARING EAGLE. Arvin Tolentino makes his way to the rim during his UAAP debut. Photo by Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – Weeks before the craziness began, before embarking with his team on journeys to Las Vegas, South Korea, and who knows where else, before getting adapted to the college game in practices, going up against Kiefer Ravena, Chris Newsome, and more, before preparing for his first day in the UAAP, Arvin Tolentino had plans to visit Tagaytay. 

He wanted to get away with his boys, go out with them and create some memories, if not one of the last few significant ones, before his obligations as a Blue Eagle would come full circle. Training camps abroad waited with a chance at greatness possibly on the horizon.

“Ang pressure ko, ang expectations, galing sa sarili ko,” Tolentino told Rappler on that day, sharing some of his few available hours before traveling south.

(The pressure on me comes from myself.)

The talented prospect oozed confidence. Trials and tribulations as a young boy raised by a family who personified hard work conditioned Tolentino to be unafraid of the expectations being thrown at him as he was about to enter college basketball. No words from others could bring him down, not when he had already gone through so much as kid, one who just wanted to spend every single hour of playing the game he loves.

“Minahal ako nang basketball, at sobrang minahal ko ang basketball,” he said.

(Basketball loved me, and I loved it back dearly.)

But beneath the skin of one of the most sough-after high school recruits was a competitive fire not common among rookies. Tolentino didn’t bother himself with the negative opinions of others, not when the goals he set out for himself, and for his team, and for his family, easily out-valued the outside criticism.  

“We’re going to be champs. Two years from now. Even this year, we can do it,” Tolentino said at the conclusion of the conversation, with not a sense of sarcasm or lack of assurance in his voice. 

Such bold words for a young man who had yet to play a second of college basketball.

Only that’s who the young Ateneo stud is. He’s humble, and he’ll be gracious in defeat. But he has belief in himself that makes him fearless on the basketball court.

That fearlessness was on display in his UAAP debut on Sunday, June 13 against the Adamson Falcons.

Tolentino scored 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting in 17 minutes. Though he missed open shots and made common freshman mistakes, there was an impression left after the Blue Eagles’ 79-57 dominant victory that the team had a new young star in the making, one with the potential to be a big-game player for the next five years, one who could possibly help restore the Blue Eagles’ spot at the pinnacle of college basketball.

Adamson isn’t La Salle, FEU, UST, or UE. Coach Kenneth Duremdes described it best when he admitted he didn’t believe his team would make the Final Four this year, not with nine rookies in the rotation. Even ADMU head coach Bo Perasol warned his boys not to let overconfidence over the victory linger, not when “it was against a rebuilding team,” not with La Salle up next for them in a matchup where Perasol says “walang edge ang Ateneo.”

(RELATED: Arvin Tolentino’s Long Road to Katipunan)

But what Ateneo displayed should leave a lasting impression for the next seven days. Though it was not a signature win against another contender, it was a hell of a performance, nonetheless. A performance where Ravena looked like ‘The Phenom’ of old and not the guy who could barely run during last year’s season opener; a performance where Von Pessumal’s stroke looked as pure and deadly as any long-range shooter in the UAAP; a performance where Chris Newsome and Nico Elorde complemented the dynamic the Blue Eagles were running; a performance where Coach Perasol picked out contributors off the bench and got quality production from almost everyone.

A performance where a rookie with a world full of potential gave a preview of what that potential could possibly yield on the basketball court.

“Before the game, sobrang excited ako. Gusto ko mag start na. Syempre may konting pressure o nervous, kasi hindi ko pa alam paano sa UAAP eh. Pero mga two minutes na laro, wala na,” Tolentino told Rappler after his debut. 

(Before the game, I was so excited. I just wanted it to start. Of course, I felt some pressure and was nervous, because I wasn’t familiar yet with the UAAP. But two minutes into the game, it was gone.)

“Sobrang excited. Wala nang ibang pakiramdam. Sobrang excited talaga ako.”

(I was really excited. No other feeling could top it. I was really excited.)

When Tolentino wasn’t using his speed to attack slower-footed big men, he was roaming the perimeter, knocking down 3-balls, displaying his all-around game that opened the eyes of many college scouts while he was still in high school.

His game, though, is far from a finished product. As Coach Perasol mentioned in the post-game session, “Arvin was able to score but I know the whole game through, he can be better.”

Arvin Tolentino scored 12 points on 7-12 shooting in his first game for Ateneo. Photo by Rappler

Tolentino, for his part, knows this: “Feeling ko, kulang na kulang pa ako sa defense. At syempre, rebounding at passing. Kasi, kaya kong depensahan big man at kaya kong depensahan small man.” 

(I feel I still need to improve on defense. And of course, rebounding and passing. I can guard either a big man or a small man.)

How good and how much of a title contender Ateneo really is will be put to the test on Sunday, in a matchup with La Salle that promises to fill the seats of the Big Dome and quite possibly add another chapter to the already historic collection of epic encounters between both sides.

For Ateneo, it’s chance to deliver a message similar to what FEU did on Saturday, July 12. No, the Blue Eagles may not yet be seasoned enough to be considered title contenders by some pundits, but they’re definitely not going to sit around and allow their rivals blow past them. Call it pride or call it the obligation of wearing an Ateneo jersey, regardless, the Green Archers can expect a battle to remember.

No basketball aficionado will pick Ateneo over La Salle, Coach Perasol tried to explain after the win over Adamson. But his team will be ready. 

Ready for war. Ready to do what they couldn’t do last season – beat their archrivals. 

“Number one talaga defense. Kasi kumpleto sila sa offense – Jeron Teng, AVO, Pekins, may mga shooters rin sila,” Tolentino said, talking about what his team needs to do in order to make the defending champions show vulnerability. “Ang kailangan namin gawin, stop, then rebound. Yun yung key namin para manalo kasi malalaki sila at mas experience sila saamin.”

(We need to play good defense, because they’re complete on offense. We need to get stops and rebounds. Those are the keys for us to win because they’re big and they have more experience.)

And his nerves heading into the matchup? “I’m really excited.”

Maybe one day Arvin Tolentino’s impressive debut will be looked at as just that. Or maybe it will be the first episode in a series of dominant performances that will earn him a spot in Ateneo sports lore. The future is uncertain, but right now, the Blue Eagles’ looks pretty good, one where a talented rookie not lacking in confidence or fearlessness is leading the pack. 

A date with La Salle awaits. And for all of Perasol’s warnings, he will surely be ready to lead his boys into the battlefield.

Tolentino will be ready. Ravena will be ready. Newsome will be ready. Every single fan at the Big Dome wearing blue will be ready to welcome their rivals in green with deafening cheers and boisterous screams.

Ateneo will be ready.

La Salle better be as well. – Rappler.com

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