LA FERIA - They had plenty of chances to cave Saturday, with the ferocious Cardinals coming at them again and again down the stretch and the title trophy on the line. But this team refused to lose, simply refused. Every time Harlingen made a run, the Jags answered, showing that their impressive offseason run through Valley competition and beyond was no joke.
After it was over, and Econ had scored a thrilling 88-87 victory to win the C.E. Vail Tourney, the veteran friends were on top of the world. After the effort they gave, nothing but euphoria would do.
"It's all about defense, baby!" yelled Jesus "Guero" Gonzalez, one of the seniors who keyed the victory with terrific all-around play.
"After Georgetown, we knew we were going to be No. 1," added John Barrientos, whose long-limbed talents saved the charge more than once Saturday. He was referring to the summer, when the Jags went up to Central Texas and bested the field at a prestigious tourney.
"I knew I had to do it, we had to have it," chimed in Tourney MVP J.J. Velasquez, whose breakneck drive to the goal at the end and earlier, clutch free throws sealed the deal.
In all, it was one of the best basketball games in recent memory, a knock-down, drag-out classic which wasn't done until the final seconds. The Jags (15-2) defeated what may well end up being their fiercest District 31-5A rival this season, holding the lead most of the way, playing suberb hoops throughout, and saving their best moments for crunch time.
Coach Lalo Rios discoursed with relative calm on how the Jags were able to hand Harlingen only its second loss of the year. As he spoke, father Albert, the man he replaced as Econ coach six years ago, gave his son a kiss on the forehead.
"I know in my heart that this team will never give up," he said, after the Jags weathered several late Cardinal surges to salt away perhaps the biggest victory of his coaching career. "They are experienced, they have been here before, and they know how to play this game. I am very proud of these kids, to see them playing at this level is beautiful!"
A TRUE CLASSIC
The key to Saturday was going to be breaking the vaunted Cardinal press and trap, and the Jags accomplished that from the get-go. Harlingen, averaging 80 points per game coming in, makes a living off turnovers and quick scores with an athletic and deep unit. Greg Yates' club had scored 107 points against Edcouch-Elsa a day before, and Rios knew the Redbirds were sending a message. Econ, which had raced to 105 against Progreso Friday, passed expertly, never falling into the trap of trying to dribble against the pressure.
Barrientos (21 points, 12 boards) was at the center of the drill, and his condor-like wingspan and terrific instincts made sure that the Orange moved the ball upcourt in zigs and zags; the ability to do this immediately threw the Cards out of their game.
"No quick shots, no threes, that's what I told them," Rios explained. "We had to break that trap and then get good shots down low, so they couldn't get out and run. I thought we did a great job of finding the open man today, got a lot of layups."
If it wasn't JB, it was the aggressive Gonzalez (season-best 18 points, nearly flawless ball-handling) or rugged Ricky Cantu (season-high 21 points, nine boards, dominated the first half before fouling out late), making play after play, both on offense and defense. Defensively, Econ was more successful with the press than the Cards by far. The Jags were a perfect quintet against Harlingen, never getting flustered, always having the right move. The bench contributed well, too. They all played like champions.
Velasquez (18 points, six steals) was excellent in the stretch run, and seldom-noted senior Christian Zuniga was there to provide some money minutes. After Harlingen nailed a three to get to within two, JJ corralled a loose ball in the Card backcourt and sailed in for the deuce with nine seconds left, making it a 4-point game. That was it, as the Cards banked in a three with 0:01 left...too late!
The Jags had led by eight at the end of three, 58-50 with Cantu and Barrientos executing super passes for scores. Econ played head-up the whole day, advancing the basketball and keeping alert for the opening. The passing was dynamite and the Orange finished at the tin with authority, especially Cantu.
The Cards cut into the lead with a 7-0 run in the fourth but the Jags got fired up after a scary moment when Daniel Ybarra of Harlingen went down hard on a shot attempt inside. The Card fans hollered for a flagrant foul, Ybarra brazenly yelled at the refs loud enough for everyone to hear, and at that stage, Velasquez and Barrientos signaled to their fans to get louder, which they did. The turning point.
"We were ready then, we knew it was our game," said Velasquez about the signature spot. From there, the Jags exploded into a 76-65 lead, answering the bell with a magnificent surge.
Back came the Cards though. They made 17 of 20 free throws in a 37-point fourth and were soon down just two again at 78-76. At 2:07, Zuniga found Barrientos with a sharp bounce pass inside and Barrientos stole the ball on the next Card possession, eventually making two free throws. The guy can do it all.
Eventually, with Velasquez hitting four of five from the line inside the final minute, the Jags took the title from a very talented Harlingen team it will be seeing down the road, for sure.
"I am going to have some sleepless nights over them, no question," said Rios of the Cards.
As for the winning team, well, the kids were somewhat peeved at having been ranked just No. 6 in the Valley before the season, especially since they were far and away the top area club in spring and summer league action.
Where should they be ranked, someone asked in the postgame madhouse.
Barrientos, the heart and soul of this seasoned bunch of winners, took that question.
"First," he smiled, and other starters just grinned along with him.
NOTES: To read about the Jags' road to the tourney title, access the Review website at yourvalleyvoice.com