Any way you slice it, this is not the Econ of recent years, and as the annual Craig Smith Tournament began Friday, the Jags served notice to all interested parties that they are going to be heard from in this year’s District 31-5A basketball race.

It’s been awhile for the program, which last tasted playoff fruit five years ago, but as the decade prepares to turn, Lalo Rios has the Orange on the uptick. They came into the first-round matchup against unbeaten San Benito with a 4-1 mark after having failed to record 10 wins in any of the past three campaigns.

Though Econ lost a 13-point lead and eventually the game, 54-48, the overall thrust was solid, and Rios thinks that his club can compete for a playoff spot.

“We still have some learning to do, mainly about how to play in the bigger games,” said the fourth-year coach, whose depleted squad ran out of gas down the stretch against the Greyhounds, one of 32-5A’s top contenders once again this winter. “But all in all, I thought we made a good showing tonight, and these kids, a whole lot of sophomores, are coming on.”

In their quick 2009-10 start, the Jags have gotten inspired play from 6-foot-2 10th-grader John Barrientes, who came into the tourney averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds a night, including high games of 29 points against Juarez-Lincoln (with 23 rebounds) and 24 against Edcouch-Elsa.

He struggled at times Friday against the tall and active San Benito defense, but still managed 10 points and seven boards and was part of a great beginning as the Jags built a 13-point lead in the first half, only to see it whittled to seven at the half.

Attacking the basket and making smart, crisp passes, Econ was on top of Roy Garcia’s squad with a fine team effort. Josh Diaz nailed an early three to set the tone and Jesus Gonzalez converted an old-fashioned three-point play with the Jags winning the battle of aggression and taking care of the basketball with senior Mark Alvarez at the point.

Econ went on an 11-0 run for a 25-13 lead in the second as Alvarez used his strength to control a loose ball and run down to find Barrientes on the break.

This year’s unit is bigger and stronger than past teams, with ample quickness; the only trouble as the Smith began was depth, as two key players were missing from the rotation, Jorge Zuniga and Juan Luevano.

San Benito fought back into the fray with its clever postman, Marcos De los Santos (14 points and 8 boards) and guards Chris Preciado (game-high 10 rebounds) and Oscar Gonzalez. In the third period, Gonzalez came up with a pair of elevations for pull-up jumpers, and the Greyhound defense turned up the full-court pressure.

At this stage, the young Jags began to experience real trouble getting the ball into the frontcourt and despite a sweet lefty drive for two from Barrientes, turnovers allowed the visitor to gain the lead at 40-39 on Gonzalez’ first J with 0:22 left in the third.

A rattled Orange squad committed turnovers on four straight possessions to end the period, and then, with San Benito challenging every ball with a vengeance, fell out of sync. Barrientes kept hustling, but he misfired on a long baseball pass after a steal to blow a scoring chance.

Lefty Jerry Tovias brought the game to a 42-all tie with an arching three, and was knocked on his face after the shot. Fellow soph J.J. Velasquez (10 points, his fourth double-figures game in six starts) kept the team in there with three free throws off hard forays to the goal.

It was 46-46 at 4:17 after Velasquez made one of two from the line but the ‘Hounds found room inside against a flagging and fatigued Orange D and carried the day with a late rush. Ricky Cantu made a key steal and a basket but Econ was out of it.

Still, it was a promising performance against a top-flight opponent, giving Rios and Co. some confidence early in the season.

“We are still trying to figure out what we can do, and learning who we are as a team,” the coach said, admitting that much like the first time these two met, in November, the Jags got close but could not avoid turnovers in the late stages, losing 69-56. “We were a little lost out there at times, out of position. But these kids are still young, and I think that having games like this is going to help us out as the year wears on. There’s only one way to cure inexperience and that’s to play each game and take the learning to heart … man, I like this group of kids a lot.”