HIDALGO – They liked their chances going in, were pleased with the effort going out, but ran out of gas late in the game against a tremendous opponent. All in all, a promising afternoon for the Lady Cougars.

On the road facing a state-ranked Hidalgo team that came in at 16-1, North battled all the way Monday, losing 54-49 after holding several leads in the second half. In crunch time, however, the Lady Pirates hit an extra gear behind stars Neshae Owens and Nelly Flores, leaving the Lady Coog upset bid a smidgen short.

A free throw from Vicky Pena (19 points to lead all scorers) brought the visitor to within three at 52-49, but a key turnover ended the day. Still, Jenny Gaytan’s club (12-7 now) had made a very fine rush at one of South Texas’s best programs.

“We had a run going in the second half, but they just were able to find the energy to get by us,” said Gaytan, whose team is 2-0 in district and now prepares for the Jostens Classic Dec. 28-29 in McAllen. League play in 31-5A resumes Jan. 2. “That is a great team with some really good players, and I thought our girls played a super game. I really thought we had them for awhile.”

So did Brandy Garcia, who contributed 12 points and 14 rebounds against the Lady Pirates, including a late sequence where she scored on a jumper, passed for an assist, and blocked a shot to keep her teammates in it.

“I think we were a little fatigued at the end,” said the senior who averages 12 points per game this season. “We gave it our all, 100 percent, and they got to us late, Neshae picked up her game when it counted. I think it was the hardest game we ever played in, and we did great…but we just made too many errors late in the game.”

After being down by as many as 10 in the first half, the Lady Coogs got serious, using their size and strength to attack the basket and get a bunch of high-percentage shots. Pena, hitting for 13 a night as a sophomore, was outstanding, with 13 in the half, when North rebounded from a 12-2 hole to take a 25-24 lead at the break. It could have been more had the girls converted some point-blank looks they missed, but Pena made sure her club was right there.

Pena plays without fear and has definite offensive ability, as she is able to quick-drive for shots in close or step back to nail the outside shot. With seasoned passers like Dani Vargas and Essence Brown out front, Pena and Garcia usually get the ball in position to score. The latter had extra incentive Monday, as the head coach from Texas A&M-Kingsville was there to scout the four-year starter.

With the normally accurate Lady Pirates misfiring from the outside and junior Vargas all over Owens out front, North indeed asserted itself well in the second period. Pena had eight in the quarter and Vianey Salinas played excellent position defense against 6-foot super-soph Nelly Flores. Garcia tied the game at 21 with a swooping layup with her offhand, the right, and then put her group ahead by one late in the period.

Owens, who ended with 13 points and seven steals, got cranking after the break and her three-pointer sent Hidalgo back into the advantage by one. Still, when Pena scored off a Vargas feed at 3:17, the visitor led, 35-30, an upset in the making.

Vargas nailed a trey with 40 seconds left for a 40-36 lead, but that would be the high-water mark for North. Hidalgo got four free throws and some tenacious defense from Owens in the fourth while Flores exploded for six points and eight boards, taking control down under after Salinas picked up her fourth foul early in the quarter. The Lady Pirates came on while North wilted somewhat, but the latter still had one more surge to make.

The Lady Pirates seemingly had it salted away at 48-40 after Flores (16 points, 15 rebounds) assisted Jessica Salinas (10 points, seven boards), but another three from Vargas and a Brown free throw showed that the Lady Coogs weren’t quitting against a Class 3A power that went all the way to the state Final Four last year.

“They may be a 3A, but they don’t play like one,” Gaytan said afterward. “That is a well-coached team and it was good for us to come in and play so well. It will give us the experience we need heading back into district play.”

In fighting to the climax, the Lady Coogs earned the respect of Hidalgo coach Monica Rodriguez, whose team had defeated Edinburg High by five at the BISD Tourney earlier in the fall.

“We knew it was going to be some kind of game, because they have a really fine team,” Rodriguez said. “Jenny and I both knew that this was the kind of game each of us needed to get a challenge before the break. In our district, well let’s just say that we’ve done well in the past, meaning that we need all the tough games we can get. I was impressed with North, big time.”

NOTES: It won’t take long to identify which of the city teams is going to take control in the race for the playoffs, with a couple of high-profile collisions set for the first week of the new year. Jan. 2 it’s Economedes at North, with the Lady Jags looking to knock off the Lady Coogs. Econ went into the break at 10-9 while North was 12-7 heading into the Jostens Classic Dec. 29-29.

Then Jan. 5 will mark the battle between EHS and Econ, with the 13-4 Lady Bobcats, who have lost their four games by a total of 15 points, seeking a 3-0 District 31-5A start. Laura Torres leads the way with 13.4 points and 5.3 steals per game, while senior Anaka Garcia is second in the Valley with 11.3 rebounds per game. Junior Bianca Casas has also been a strong contributor for EHS, with 5.9 assists and 2.5 steals to with her 9-point scoring average.