Heading into UAAP Season 81, Arvin Tolentino was fully motivated to redeem himself from the costly blunder that ended the FEU Tamaraws' campaign last year.
The Tamaraws were one basket away from upsetting the Ateneo Blue Eagles and booking a trip to the finals. Tolentino had the ball - and ultimately, FEU's fate - in his hands, but he ended up botching the possession. That was all the window that the eventual champions needed to finish them off in overtime.
A year later, the star forward found himself in a similar situation.
"Never again, never again," he told himself when he held the ball in the dying seconds of their knockout battle for the last semifinals seat against the De La Salle Green Archers Wednesday.
Tolentino ensured that no deja vu will occur as he delivered the booming go-ahead triple with three seconds remaining to lift the Tamaraws into the Final Four for the sixth straight season.
"To be honest, I really thought about last year. Last year, I had the chance. We had the chance to enter the finals and we blew it. That missed opportunity, our last shot, I always think of that. It still haunts me," admitted Tolentino.
This time, he did not attempt to single-handedly save the game. He passed the ball to the team's playmaker, Jasper Parker, who then made the right moves until Tolentino was left wide open at the top of the key.
"My shot was actually because of JR," said Tolentino. "He's our best creator, he's great in penetrating. I checked the clock, there were still 13 seconds, so I called him and I gave him the ball then I just stayed ready."
Tolentino insisted that the whole team deserves credit for the victory, making special mention of Kenneth Tuffin's long jumper that cut the deficit down to two in the last 39 seconds and paved the way for his game-winner.
"I don't think of myself as the hero, I never thought of proving that," he said. "I want to show everybody that it took all of us. My shot is as big as Kenneth's. Maybe the people will think that we won because of me, because of my shot, but it's as big as any basket that we made this game."
It was a tough year for Tolentino, who missed a total of three games due to suspension, including crucial ones in the midst of FEU's 0-4 slide in the second round. But he more than made up for his absence by leading the charge in the four wins that followed and nailing the dagger that propelled his team to the playoffs.
"It could have been our last game," an emotional Tolentino said. "I was just thinking that I won't waste my teammates' sacrifices. I prayed and the Lord answered my prayer."
This could very well be the redemption story that Tolentino was looking for but he knows that the mission is not yet complete. The challenge continues as he tries to help the Tamaraws return to the finals for the first time since their title run three years ago.
"I've been working hard since I got to FEU," he said. "I changed myself, my coaches changed me, and I just want to give everything for FEU."