Neil Tolentino went from zero to hero real quick

Basketball careers in college don’t always pan out the way they begin.

While some play the full five playing years in the UAAP how they would have imagined it, there are also those who suddenly see themselves transferring to another school where they still believe their talents will shine even brighter. Take for instance: Jaydee Tungcab, Ricci Rivero, Jerie Pingoy, Hubert Cani, and Arvin Tolentino.

Just in case you missed it, there’s also another young blood making the same case for himself this UAAP Season 82 – University of the East’s Neil Tolentino.

Tolentino doesn’t exactly exude that star material. Rather, he’s a recruit that’s earned his keep from all the dirty work he does on the floor. He chases loose balls, makes the right passes, rarely scores, and hounds whoever his coach assigns to him on the floor.

With the bulk of UE’s scoring coming from Rey Suerte, Alex Diakhite, and Philip Manalang, Tolentino knows he’s nowhere near the first option for his team on offense. And he’s okay with that. But when the opportunity presents itself to him, however, he’s quick to make the most out of it.

In the Red Warriors two wins so far in Season 82, Tolentino was the X-factor for both victories. On both ends of the floor at that.

Against the NU Bulldogs last Sunday he totaled 12 points from 5 of 9 shooting, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists – some of which were timely down the stretch just when National U was trying to catch up. He even hit a three, something which he has never been known for in his career.

He also has quite the vision for a forward, dishing some no-look or drop passes down low to his teammates who are wide open for the easy score. Most of them have been to the big guy, Diakhite.

It’s dangerous for a team to win against another squad that has a glue guy like Tolentino, especially when he’s extra inspired that day after his idol Paul Lee came into the dugout and gave the Red Warriors a pep talk.

“Unang una, alumni si Paul Lee so alam niya laro dito. Na-inspire kami maglaro kasi pro siya tapos dinaanan niya kami dito. Na-push yun adrenaline and energy namin na maglaro ng maayos kasi idol ko rin yun. Nung nakita ko siya, lalo ako ginanahan.”

Not many people know Neil didn’t plan on going to Recto for college. He first went to Taft Avenue where he joined the Green Archers of La Salle, hoping to make a name for himself inside the Enrique Razon Sports Center.

After putting his name on the basketball radar in high school with stints in both Nazareth School of National University and Letran, including a selection as a SLAM Rising Star, he envisioned a successful career at La Salle, when he was recruited back in 2018 by then Green Archers head coach Louie Gonzales.

Sad to say, that didn’t pan out as he was cut on the last day before UAAP Season 81. But rather than sulk at home, he immediately took his talents to the Red Warriors as he saw another opportunity with former head coach Joe Silva. He even became close friends with former “Mr. Extra-Rice” Alvin Pasaol himself.

That final cut drove him to do better, to show the world that he belonged with the big boys of the UAAP. And it’s what he’s shown for UE during their whole first round of eliminations.

But Tolentino had a specific date marked on his calendar. September 14, 2019, the first match-up agianst his former team, the La Salle Green Archers was a date he longed for since last year.

From the get-go of that game versus the Archers, Tolentino went berserk. He eventually finished with 19 points on 8/11 shooting, 3 boards, plus 2 steals in 28 minutes of play. That was his best game of Season 82. No coincidence it came against La Salle.

“Di ako pinansin dun.”

Few words, but those definitely stung for the UE forward.

Like that old saying, it’s not how you start but rather how you finish. With Tolentino’s scrappiness and aggressiveness on both ends, UE just might pull off a couple more surprises like what they did against La Salle and NU in the first round.