Greg Selber

Every time he comes back home, David Keith is fired up. Fired up to win, but also excited to see how far he’s brought the Rattlers toward being a carbon copy of the super-successful program he grew up in.

The Sharyland coach played for Edinburg in the early 1990s, and got a nice barometer Friday on where his group is at, with a 63-59 overtime win over the Bobcats in the second round of the annual Craig Smith Tournament.

The Rattlers came from 14 down in the second half to stun the Bobcats, now just 2-3 on the season. Angel Ibanez carried the Reds with a 21-point, 17-rebound performance that included three clutch free throws in the extra period. For the 3-2 Rattlers and their mentor, the triumph was a sweet one.

“I bet you didn’t think we could do it,” he said after Sharyland had outscored Edinburg 18-7 in the fourth to force OT. “But I think we really wanted it, and at the end, we played like it. Every time I come back here I want my team to play with heart, like we did at EHS, and we did that today.”

And indeed, the Rattlers were the more intense unit on the floor Friday, not letting early deficits stand in the way of a solid effort. Down the stretch, Sharyland just kept on coming, running the floor and cutting and passing like the Runnin’ Bobcats have done for years. These two teams have played some doozies in recent Smith history, and this time, Keith’s crew prevailed.

“They don’t seem to care about the scoreboard, they just keep playing,” said the coach. “We’ve been down 14, 16 points a couple of times this year, in fact, we’ve been behind in every game. But the kids don’t let it bother them, they just do what they have to do to stay in the game and try to win at the end.”

Edinburg, with long-time assistant Zeke Cuellar taking over for 25-year veteran Joe Filoteo, was impressive at times, with a tall, athletic group that is set to defend its three straight 31-5A crowns. But the somewhat inexperienced Bobcats made fatal turnovers late in the game, and still haven’t found the right combinations after severe graduation losses left them with just two returning veterans.

One of them, shooting star Chris Flores, led the team with 21 points, including six three-pointers, but he dislocated a finger in the fourth period and sat out most of the overtime. Other than his 21 and 14 from senior post Julius Flores, no other Bobcat scored in double figures.

Meanwhile Ibanez, a strong and swift 6-foot-1 athlete who has agreed to sign with The University of Texas-Pan American on a baseball scholarship, was awesome in the paint, cleaning the glass and leaping high for inside scores. He also passed off for a couple of huge assists in the fourth period, as the Rattlers were sharper than their rival in all phases late in the match.

“I can pass a little, too,” joked Ibanez after the win, which he sealed with three free throws in OT.

He also echoed the words of his coach, saying, “This team played with a lot of heart today, it doesn’t matter if we’re down 1 or down 20, we believe we can come back. We’ve had some close losses this year, but tonight we finally got a win.”

Keith said that narrow defeats to Harlingen South and Weslaco haven’t gotten the resilient Rattlers down, noting that though the win against his alma mater was excellent, he and the team have other things to worry about down the road. Their main District 30-5A competition this year will come from a daunting McAllen High team.

“I am proud of the guys, but we would trade it for a district win any day,” he said.

CATS’ HOT EARLY

Chris Flores wasted little time getting warmed up against Sharyland. Earlier in the season he had nailed nine treys against Raymondville to set a program record along with netting a career-high 37 points. Friday he flipped a long one in with 23 seconds gone in the game, and soon notched another bomb from the right corner. It was 9-1, EHS, and Sharyland burned a timeout four minutes in to regroup.

The ‘Cats have been a fast starter for what seems like forever, and they burst out to a 16-8 lead after one. Julius Flores, long touted as a potentially dominant inside player, is a muscular senior with quickness; his only problem in the past has been confidence, but he finally appears ready to form a solid inside combo with 6-5 Travis East this season.

Elsewhere, replacing graduated honor-winning guards Estevan Arriola and Noe De la Rosa is a task that falls to Chris Flores and a bevy of newcomers, the foremost among them being sophomore Aaron Olvera.

The 5-10 soph is flashy out front, with nice dribble skills and a keen eye for the quick pass. His penetration is hard to stop and as he continues to develop, Olvera looks like a fixture in Cuellar’s EHS lineup for years to come. On one first-half sequence, he broke down the D with a fancy drive, shooting a bullet pass to Flores for an easy layup.

With Julius Flores making an emphatic blocked shot on Sharyland’s diminutive guard Kerry Bodner and Robert Pimental coming on to give the ‘Cats some quality minutes, Edinburg seemed in control. But the Bobcats started missing their shots, and Sharyland kept attacking the basket with precision and hustle.

The Rattlers got to the line 18 times in the first half (making just 10) and their aggression chipped away at the lead, until it was just 25-22 at the half, EHS.

Flores sank another trey in the first minute of the third and the energetic Pimental made one of his three steals, with senior Jaime Acuna converting off the pilfer for a 32-24 advantage. Acuna was a double-figures scorer last year and is a versatile leaper who can shine on both ends. He’s started somewhat slowly in 2008, though, and finished Friday with just six points.

Olvera created a pair of baskets in the third, taking his man in the paint for a hanging lefty scoop and then finding big Flores again for a deuce. Ibanez scored on a follow shot to cut the lead to 8 but Chris Flores nailed his fourth three of the period to make it 49-38 heading into the fourth.

Besides Ibanez, the Rattlers have a bunch of mid-size guys who move well and flash to the ball with regularity. Ibanez says he and his teammates can run all night, and that they are looking forward to seeing how they can do against McHigh, the overwhelming favorite to sweep through the league.

One of the other kids who Keith thinks can eventually be an important contributor is Mike Trevino, and he came through with eight of his nine points in the last eight minutes as Sharyland steadily climbed back into contention. His three-ball made it 49-41, and after another drive, draw and dish from Edinburg’s Olvera (nine points, seven assists), Shary’s Eric Martinez made 1 of 2 free throws.

Then Martinez swept baseline right for a tough leaner in traffic, with EHS doing too much standing and watching on D. Ibanez, who scored 15 points after halftime, started drawing a crowd, and responded with the two looks to open teammates. After Chris Flores made 1 of 2 charity tosses, it was a 4-point game at 56-52, Edinburg still ahead.

The game had started at 2 p.m., and a full contingent of EHS students was on hand, giving the match a playoff atmosphere. These fights between Edinburg and Shary have tended to be like that since Keith took over three years ago. The Bobcat faithful got on their feet now, as the Redclads advanced again.

The key plays saw Trevino bury another long-range jumper and Ibanez sink 1 of 2 at the line for the tie. Edinburg turned it over on a walk with 0:29 left, giving the underdog a chance, but defensive pressure from Acuna and the Flores Boys kept the score knotted as time ran out.

Edinburg struck first in OT, on a sweet lefty hanger in the lane from Olvera, but Sharyland felt the momentum, and outplayed the ‘Cats to take the win. Jared Denton converted a huge basket inside for a 59-58 lead, and he later made a free throw as well.

In all, the Rattlers hustled their way to a win that should provide some zest heading into their Diamondback Classic next week, an event at which the Bobcats will be in attendance, no doubt hoping for a shot at paybacks.

“We are going to have to keep working to get better and then to get good,” Keith said. “Then, maybe we can be the best when district comes. Our guys battled today, and Angel, he’s really done so much for our program. The main thing is, I want my guys to look at the Sharyland shirts they wear and know what they stand for. All that matters is hard work.”

NOTES: The Rattlers lost in the tourney final to Laredo Alexander, while the Bobcats rebounded to take the consolation title with a victory over McAllen Memorial.