It was like a 1970s horror movie. One could see the killer about to strike but there was nothing to be done to warn the victim. One just had to watch, anticipating, gasping for breath. But at the last minute, the heroine woke up from her stupor and pierced the vampire’s heart, ending the terror and saving the day….barely!
North got its long-awaited win over EHS Tuesday to end the District 31-5A season in second place; the 54-52 victory was the school’s second against the Lady Bobcats in four seasons under Coach Jenny Gaytan. But it came the hardest of ways and not without an incredible bout of nerves, as the Lady Coogs blew a 20-point lead and just managed to hold off an amazing comeback from a beleaguered, injury-ridden rival.
When sophomore sensation Vicky Pena foiled an EHS inbounds try under her own basket by tying up Laura Torres under the basket with five seconds left, North hung on. By doing so, it advanced to a bi-district playoff game against Brownsville Lopez Tuesday, marking the team’s second playoff trip in a row.
But it was so close, and so disappointing in a way. After dominating the game from the outset with superb offensive movement, passing, and shooting, the Lady Coogs (12-2, 24-11) went in the tank big-time, getting rattled by desperation pressure from the Lady ‘Cats (11-3, 25-7) and almost giving this one away.
“They [EHS] have a lot of tradition, and that means they never give up,” said a relieved Gaytan after it was done. “They forced us into changing the tempo after we got a great start, but we were able to find a way to get it done at the end. I’m really tired, mentally, right now.”
Had it not been for Pena, who scored eight in the fourth and finished the 14-game league slate averaging 14.0 ppg (18.0 in the second half of the schedule), North would have suffered the ignominious fate of losing at home to a limping foe minus two key starters. But as it was, she made the play at the end to clinch second place and the team’s seventh straight win.
The main culprit was foul trouble, as North got into difficulty early in the third; at one point, Pena, Brandy Garcia and Essence Brown all were on the floor with four fouls. Brown fouled out soon after and spent the rest of the game watching nervously from the side.
“I knew we would pull it out,” hedged the smooth senior guard. “We have been in this situation before, and we had to have some other girls step up. I don’t know why we got into foul trouble, maybe we were tired, I don’t know. But it hurt us.”
DYNAMITE AT THE OUTSET
Coming off a thrilling overtime win on the road against Harlingen South, the Lady Coogs were anything but flat or complacent as the biggest game of the year started Tuesday. With suddenly super junior Vianey Salinas owning the game with 12 points and seven rebounds in the first half, Gaytan’s Gals raced to a 35-15 advantage at the intermission. It had been 16-4 in a hurry as Salinas, scoring inside and out, led the way. Pena and Dani Vargas nailed early threes and having the lead allowed North to put pressure on the visitor.
In the past it’s been EHS forcing the Lady Coogs into backcourt turnovers in bunches, but this time the tables were turned, and the Lady ‘Cats looked overmatched in the first 16 minutes.
But Rachel Carmona’s club rallied with a vengeance after the break, battling for a 19-8 advantage in the third even though Anaka Garcia (foot) and Victoria Ponce (knee) were reduced to clipboard duty on the bench. Stepping up to the plate in the clutch was a pair of inside kids who each averaged just 4.3 ppg coming in. Michellin Mercelita, the spindly freshman with a world of ability, began to crash the boards and score, while burly Emma Lopez had her best night in a long time, banging the blocks for her patented low-post moves. Each of those girls scored 13 points against North while junior star Laura Torres got untracked after a slow start to finish with 12, six under her league average.
It was just a 9-point game heading into the fourth with North starting to see its stars drop like flies with every whistle. Mercelita and Lopez would toss in 11 points combined down the stretch and teammate Bianca Casas would fire in a pair of jumpers, one from downtown.
Slowly but surely, Edinburg came back, with Torres rushing at the North ballhandlers in the backcourt and the other Lady ‘Cats trapping and stealing at will. With 2:45 to go in a 4-point game, the EHS faithful were going bonkers during a timeout while their counterparts in Gold and Blue were silent as ghosts. After all the confidence from the huge win at South, was this going to end in disaster? Almost.
Pena nailed a money jumper off a feed from Vargas but Casas answered with a hoop at 1:02. Mercelita blocked Salinas’ shot (after “V” had made six slaps of her own earlier) and after an exchange of scoreless possessions, the fabulous freshman stole one, passed off, ran the court, and scored at the other end to make it 54-52. Absolute bedlam!
North with the ball, holding inside the final minute. EHS did not foul, then tried and failed to foul. But the Lady Coogs gave it away with six seconds to go and EHS inbounded after a timeout.
That’s when Pena jumped on Torres after Casas, fearing a 5-second call, tossed it in the general direction of her teammate. The possession arrow favored North and the Lady Coogs inbounded twice to fouls from EHS, and ran out the clock.
Ironically foul trouble, or lack thereof, came back to haunt the Lady ‘Cats at the close. EHS had committed not one foul in the fourth and their hacks at the climax gave North the ball out of bounds instead of forcing the Lady Coogs to the free-throw line. If EHS had been over the limit, it would probably have gotten the ball back. But as it happened, it never did, and North had escaped with a crazy win.
EHS lost for the second time in a row and planned to regroup with its new faces in the lineup for a first-round postseason match with Weslaco, the 32-5A runner-up and a team Carmona’s unit has beaten once before this season, 50-45. It looks like an uphill climb for the Red and Blue, however with the way it gutted up and rallied Tuesday, perhaps they can keep the momentum alive for a bi-district triumph.
The Lady Cougars squandered most of the feel-good of the Lady Hawk conquest and a second-place finish, so Gaytan had a psych job on her hands: to wash away the film of a near-crater and get her kids’ heads back on straight for the playoffs.
NOTES: The Lady Jags of Econ closed on a high note by scoring a season-best 65 points in a 26-point win over P-SJ-A Memorial. After getting 18 points from Michelle Leija, Econ finished 4-8, 14-20 for the campaign.
OLVERA EN FUEGO
The boys’ game was as competitive as one might expect for a half, as the Bobcats led North, 40-31. But after junior Aaron Olvera erupted for a crowd-pleasing 19-point third period, it was Blowout City, with EHS (12-0, 25-6) on top, 75-48.
The Coogs got a career-high 20 points from senior Juan Ramirez, including six three-pointers, but got rolled in the second half behind the high-wire act of Olvera, who made five bombs in the period and finished with eight, one short of the school record set by Chris Flores last season. He scored 34 Tuesday, two short of his season high achieved back in December against Calallen.
Edinburg looks like a good bet for its fifth straight 31-5A title, provided it could get past Harlingen in the season finale Friday. the ‘Cats are gunning for their second unbeaten league run in three seasons and were clicking along perfectly against North, passing expertly, running and jumping on defense, and hitting their open shots.
Michael Lopez tossed in a dozen for North while Stevie Guerrero notched 18 for the Bobcats, whose average margin of victory in 31-5A is 19.8 points for 12 Ws. Seldom-seen EHS guard Jonas Hernandez brought the ‘Cats to their feet with six late points, including a driving layup that rolled around for what seemed like an hour before falling in.
The Coogs (4-8, 12-17) suited up just eight kids after an injury to Hector Garza. With former starters Jared Weems and Sam Cavazos already out, it was a tough night for the home side, which had entertained hopes of capturing the fourth and final playoff spot after battling to a 4-5 mark after a win against Pharr North two weeks ago.
NOTES: For extensive coverage of the Econ boys, check out the Review Web site. The Jags (7-6, 16-13) clinched their first playoff spot on six years with a win at Pharr North Friday.