The signature moment on this night of monumental surprises came with 2:08 remaining in the third quarter. With EHS senior Bianca Casas at the free-throw line, the loud bevy of North fans rose in fury to chant “Miss it, miss it!” at each attempt. All night, the Lady Coog fans owned the noise battle while their team dominated the hoops collision down on the court, each Gold group making a lasting impression.
The game was at EHS, people. Not North.
And that is the long and short of it, after North pushed the Lady Bobcats up and down the court, winning 57-45 Tuesday in the last action for both teams before the holiday break.
They outhustled their opponent, passed infinitely more skillfully, and never let the vaunted EHS pressure get the best of them. The Lady Coogs (3-0, 11-6) also didn’t let recent internal challenges bother them, either.
Having lost six of eight before a league win against P-SJ-A Memorial ahead of the showdown at EHS (now 2-1, 13-4), North had been beset by confidence problems and a bit of bickering between individuals on the squad. For a unit that returned most of the cast that advanced to the state’s Sweet 16 last year, it wasn’t working out like they had planned.
It had been the big murmur and buzz around town this month, especially after EHS had bombed them by 29 at a tournament in San Antonio: “What’s wrong with North, the preseason No. 1?”
But they finally cut the nonsense and put it all together when it counted, leading this one from midway through the second period, silencing the Lady Bobcat home fans, and remaining unbeaten in District 31-5A. And in the process, smiles returned to the faces.
“There was a lot of frustration, but I am glad we worked it back together for this game,” said star junior Vicky Pena, who came off the bench to lead all scorers with 22 points; at times, she was safely on an island of talent with the other nine girls circling, unable to touch her. “I knew we could be like this again, it was just a matter of actually doing it instead of talking about it.”
Pena, who entered the game halfway through the second period and immediately began to slice up the EHS D, noted that perhaps she and her teammates had been a little cocky to start the season.
“You can’t get too confident…maybe that was it,” she suggested. “We might have thought like that at the beginning. But now that we are past all that, we just have to keep playing as a team. When we do that, we are the best.”
EHS seemed to have all the momentum starting the evening, but as it turned out, their star did not start either, and was ineffective when she played. Laura Torres, averaging 23 points per game, did not come in until the second period, and would score just nine points due to a hand injury.
In her absence, the Lady ‘Cats looked somewhat flustered, rushing things, failing to get the ball to the open space, and never mustering the defensive charge they have been famous for over the years. North was equally faulty at first, and the initial period was ugly as a flat rock, ending 9-8 in favor of EHS.
Early on, the Lady ‘Cats worked the ball to emerging sophomore star Micheline Mercelita, and she contributed two buckets. But that quickly faded as North rotated power players in and out to try and contain the 6-foot post. Vianey Salinas, Chelsea Luna, and Dora Ureste held their own inside with help from Pena, who matched up against Mercelita a few times as well. Bottom line, EHS did not run the offense, and the Lady Cogs started to pull away.
Only missed free throws kept the underdog from a big lead, as they made just three of 10 in the half. Other than that, North was very sharp, as Pena had eight in the second and Larissa Arriola added five, including one of the team’s four three-pointers that gave it a 25-21 lead at the half.
Senior Dani Vargas had two of the bombs, and redeemed herself quite nicely after a pretty spotty stretch of games.
“I injured my right ankle a few weeks ago, and then the left,” she said afterward. “I thought, what am I supposed to, run on my ankles out there? As far as what we have been going through, we were pretty negative for a while, but we were able to get past it and come together. At halftime, we all said, ‘THIS is the team that went to the Sweet 16, let’s just keep it going.’”
That they kept it going was a testament to better effort than their foe, as Pena outclassed her defenders badly, going for nine in the third as the Lady Coogs built a 14-point advantage. Leading to that, another trey from Vargas made it 32-23 as the Lady Coogs broke the press, passed beautifully, and denied any attempts the Lady ‘Cats made to settle down and play their game.
Ureste delivered a nice feed to Pena and then Vargas (14 points, seven assists) put the stamp on the win by faking a pass right and keeping for the driving layup at the end of the quarter.
Torres gutted it up with help from Casas (13 points, 11 in the second half after a ragged first 16 minutes) and cut the lead to eight. But Pena, simply brilliant with the ball, split the D for a layup and nailed a late three to seal the deal. After all the doubt and hard times, North had returned to prominence.
“Everyone was saying, ‘They’re not number one, blah, blah, blah,’” Vargas commented. “But we didn’t listen to that. We knew what we could do, what we were capable of, and we just finally decided, this it is: we have to show it.”
Coach Jenny Garcia, who helped her girls weather the storm with some firm psychology and patience, said that the Lady Coogs showed what they were made of Tuesday.
“It is the character of these girls that came through,” she noted. “They worked their way through it, they regained the unity. This is a great group, period.”
NOTES: Patty Hernandez did well for EHS with 12 rebounds, with Mimi Tigner getting 10; Pena and Salinas each hauled down nine for North, with Ureste claiming eight.
EHS came in averaging 71 points per game but was held to its lowest output of the year. The previous team nadir was 50 points in a 5-point win over Laredo Alexander.