Arvin Tolentino made a spectacular debut in his first game with the NorthPort Batang Pier just one day after being acquired from Barangay Ginebra San Miguel for the high-flying Jamie Malonzo.
Despite his lack of familiarity with NorthPort, their head coach Pido Jarencio chose to deploy Tolentino down the stretch and his gamble paid off handsomely.
The 26-year-old forward played 36 minutes off the bench in their thrilling 92-89 win over the Phoenix Super LPG Fuel Masters on opening day of the 2022 PBA Commissioner’s Cup. The Far Eastern University alumnus finished with an impressive 16 points, six rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and four blocks for the Batang Pier.
When Phoenix built a six-point lead, 87-81, with less than two minutes remaining in the contest after back-to-back three-pointers from Javee Mocon and Tyler Tio, it was Tolentino who responded for NorthPort on the ensuing possession. He confidently hit a three for NorthPort to bring the deficit that they faced back down to a much more manageable three points, 87-84.
Although Batang Pier import Prince Ibeh fouled out on the next possession, it did not douse their spirits. Reserve guard Roi Sumang built off the momentum from Tolentino’s crucial three-pointer and scored five consecutive points to give them a two-point lead, 89-87, with only 40 seconds remaining in the game.
Tio then tied the game for the Super LPG Fuel Masters with two made free throws before Sumang found Robert Bolick with a cross court pass for the game-winning three-pointer with 12 seconds left on the game clock.
Bolick led the way for NorthPort with 21 points, six assists, and only one turnover, British-Rwandan import Ibeh had 19 points, 15 rebounds, and four steals, and last year’s PBA Defensive Player of the Year Arwind Santos tallied 10 points, 12 rebounds, a steal, and two blocks.
Meanwhile, Tolentino’s fellow second unit member Sumang hit six-of-eight shots to finish with 15 points, four rebounds, three assists, and one steal
It was an inspiring win for NorthPort and fully embodied the “Never Say Die” culture of the Ginebra team that Tolentino reportedly still practiced with as recently as the beginning of this week. Their head coach Jarencio, himself a six-year Ginebra veteran in the 1990s, should have no problem installing this kind of resilient attitude if he chooses to do so given his and his team’s history with the league’s favorite franchise.
Five existing Batang Pier players–Paolo Taha, Kevin Ferrer, Jerrick Balanza, Arthur dela Cruz, Jr, and Jesper Ayaay–have previously spent time with Ginebra and the arrival of Tolentino, 2020 PBA Most Improved Player Prince Caperal, Gilas Pilipinas veteran Jeff Chan, and Kent Salado brings that number up to nine.
While they have seemingly turned into a farm team for Ginebra and most of these aforementioned players have seen better days in the PBA, the youthful pairing of Tolentino and Bolick should be enough to keep this team competitive for the time being. The 41-year-old Santos’ persistent strong play and Ibeh’s dominant presence will be a source of strength as well.
If Tolentino can maintain this level of play throughout the season and players such as Sumang can continue to step up, a surprise run from NorthPort similar to their quarterfinal showing in the 2021 PBA Fiesta Conference should be within reach considering that they already have one of the best players in the country in Bolick.
They are sure to miss the athletic play of the rising star Malonzo, but Tolentino’s ability to spread the floor may prove to be a better fit for them at the moment as it frees up space for the crafty Bolick to operate.
The Batang Pier may not have the tools on paper to go toe-to-toe with the PBA’s giants on a nightly basis, yet the heritage of their head coach and personnel as Ginebra alumni will make them a tough team to contend with on any given day.
As the PBA continues to grow more one-sided by the day, one cannot help but root for this underdog NorthPort team filled with outcasts–save for Bolick who looks all but destined for an eventual trade to Ginebra, the San Miguel Beermen, or the Magnolia Hotshots–who are fighting to stay relevant in this league.