It’s tournament time for the Edinburg girls, with North and EHS headed to San Antonio Friday for a shot at a couple of big-time high school basketball powers as the state playoffs continue.
The Lady Bobcats (28-8), by virtue of their stunning 66-61 upset win over Harlingen South Tuesday night at The University of Texas-Pan American, face off with San Antonio Wagner at 8 p.m. Friday night at The University of Texas-San Antonio Convocation Center. North (27-11), which had little trouble with Harlingen in the nightcap Tuesday, breezing 60-41, takes on San Antonio Jay (33-4), in the preceding match at 6 p.m.
Edinburg has won narrow contests against Weslaco (by three in bi-district), San Antonio Southwest (45-44 in area) and South to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005-06. The Lady Coogs, who blasted Lopez (68-33), outlasted Laredo United (45-40) before pummeling the Lady Cards, are making their first appearance in the regional tournament.
At stake this weekend is a chance to travel to Austin and represent Region 4 at the state final four. To get there, the Valley teams are going to have to come up with the two-day streak of their lives. Their opponents are flat awesome.
Neither of the foes is a surprise ticket at the San Antone dance, as Jay entered the season at No. 9 in the TABC preseason poll, with Wagner No. 12.
The Lady Mustangs of Jay are gifted with one of the best big girls in the region, 5-foot-11 junior Erica Donovan, who averages 17 points and 12 rebounds. The team works from the inside out and is among the state leaders in field goal percentage.
The main drawback to the team’s rush to glory has been a season-ending injury to all-around senior star Julissa Garrett, who was averaging 14 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists (with 78 steals) before going down for the count Feb. 3. In her stead, 5-10 soph Maretta Stubbs has stepped in, and she posts marks of 6.3 points and 4.7 boards a night.
Jay defeated New Braunfels Tuesday 54-45, on the same court that the regional tournament field will compete on, as Donovan had 19 points to guide her team to its 20th straight victory.
Stubbs hit a huge three-pointer in the fourth quarter of the New Braunfels game to pace the squad from a slim 43-39 lead into the driver’s seat late. But make no mistake, Jay is vulnerable without Garrett, having won its four previous games prior to Tuesday by fewer than nine points each time.
Last year this team was 28-6 and beat McAllen High in the regional semifinals, only to lose the next day to Pflugerville.
Wagner, meanwhile, has been on the big stage before, as the Lady Thunderbirds advanced to the state final four in 2007-08, beating McAllen High at the regional before losing to Cy Fair. Last year they dropped out against Pflugerville in the third round but got revenge on the Lady Panthers Tuesday, winning 51-39.
The Lady Thunderbirds are athletic with good size, led by senior point guard Len’nique Brown, a three-year starter who had five steals against Pflugerville. She is rated among the state’s best for a team that is now 33-2 after playoff wins against SA Stevens, SA MacArthur, and Pflugerville.
How good is this team? Good enough to have taken out fellow regional competitor Jay not once but twice this season. With Ashley Catlett (20 against MacArthur) and Michelle Rodriguez pairing with Brown out front, the Lady ‘Birds’ three-guard attack is difficult to slow down. They got off to a 25-8 start against the Lady Panthers and a 28-2 blowout beginning versus MacArthur.
They have won 30 games in a row since two early losses in November and along with the fabulous frontcourt there is a solid post option in 6-0 Arielle Roberson (11 boards in her last game).
Wagner is the odds-on favorite to return to state for the second time in three seasons.
WHAT IT WILL TAKE
To win, North is going to have to do one thing first and foremost: stay out of foul trouble. The combination of an active, attacking defense and very little dept has been a problem at times in 2009-10. The Lady Coogs have to keep 6-0 junior Vianey Salinas in the paint and off the bench; she has improved greatly since the year began and can block shots in bunches. Senior Brandy Garcia is perhaps the premier shot-blocker in the Valley, and she will have to provide help on Donovan, who moves well down low.
North may be able to make some waves at the guard spots, with Dani Vargas playing her best basketball of the season. She toyed with the Harlingen backcourt group, with quick and aggressive drives to the hole and pinpoint passes all over the gym. Essence Brown has also been hot in the playoffs, but must avoid the propensity for ticky-tacky fouls too far from the basket.
The girls have a chance to avenge an early blowout loss to Jay, which is not the same team these days because of the injury to Garrett. Coach Jenny Gaytan would not go out on a limb with any predictions after her squad blasted Harlingen. She did say that if her kids continue to do what they’ve been doing in the playoffs, it could be interesting.
For EHS, the key is the continued play of inspired fill-ins Shermee Tigner and Michellin Mercelita. With Anaka Garcia out, these two will have to carry the load down low, along with senior Emma Lopez. They have been active on the boards thus far, with Tigner making the most of her minutes with strong inside play, clutch shooting, and some great passing. The Lady Bobcats have to hang in there against a rugged and quick Lady Thunderbird group, and they have to create some easy opportunities inside.
That’s where junior point guard Bianca Casas comes in. She has been clutch through three playoff games but must adjust to an augmentation of the overall speed of the game at this level. Intermittently this season, EHS has been vulnerable to a hard press, such as in the first two losses to South; in the third time, which was the charm, the Lady Hawks were not able to rattle the Lady Bobcats, permitting them to use the middle to break the press and set up at the offensive end.
So often at this stage of the season, Valley teams are overwhelmed in the first five minutes of the ball game, falling too far behind to catch up. Wagner specializes in early intimidation, steals, and easy baskets off turnovers. But this EHS team is gutty, having weathered injuries and come out the other side against the odds. If Rachel Carmona’s crew can keep the magic going, observers will know it in the first five minutes of play Friday.
They have to keep their cool and not wither under the pressure and look for junior guard Laura Torres to be in the middle of the early fray. Though she is excellent at making breakneck rushes to the goal, LT will find that versus a Wagner guard contingent that can really move, a well-placed give-and-go might be the order of the day.