Tuesday it was looking eerily similar to the first time the Jags met the Cougars, with a double-digit halftime lead melting away under the North pressure. But this time, in a game they had to win to keep playoff hopes alive, the Orange came through.
The Coogs had cut a 14-point halftime lead down to 10 by the end of the third, and turned up the defense with the Football Boys leading the charge. But when it got to a 5-point margin after a three-pointer from Juan Ramirez, who along with grid teammate Manny Garcia keyed the comeback, the Jags responded. Jesus Gonzalez, who led the team with 16 points, converted a free throw, the defense forced two huge North turnovers, and John Barrientos provided enormous hustle plays down the stretch. Econ held its enemy scoreless from there on out to win 54-44, rising to 4-4 in District 31-5A and 13-11 overall.
It seemed like East Street in the beginning, much as it had when the Jags had blown a 10-point advantage at the intermission to lose 61-47 during the first half of the league slate. With Ricky Cantu and Barrientos cleaning up down low (each had 12 rebounds for the night as the Jags held a plus-18 margin in that category), and Gonzalez attacking the basket, it was all Econ for a 28-14 halftime bulge.
J.J. Velasquez, one of the group’s four sophomore starters, had tossed in seven quick points to get the party started and the Jags broke the pressure easily with Josh Diaz, returning to form after a hand injury, handling the ball well.
North, meanwhile, down to nine bodies and without leading scorer Jared Weems (who sat out the game), was sluggish on offense and managed little defensive stop power.
But the tide changed in the second half with North surging to a 17-13 performance thanks to balanced scoring and some nice contributions from freshman Aaron Beltran, playing his first varsity game.
Every time the Coogs got close, though, Econ had an answer. North cut the lead to eight when Garcia stole one and scored. Gonzalez stopped the bleeding with a defensive rebound and a drive upcourt that ended with a rolling lay. Michael Lopez (10 points, six in the fourth) had one roll in and out, and at the other end, Cantu and Barrientos kept loose balls alive, resulting in Cantu making 1 of 2 free throws for an 11-point margin at 2:27 of the third.
The difference in this one was hustle inside, as the Econ post game was superior to North’s. Barrientos, who scored just six Tuesday, was expert in the high post with passing, and he battled on the glass with passion. Lopez countered on the inside in the late stages, but the Jags made the plays they needed to come up with the big win, their third in four games now.
The victory erased the sour taste of the blown opportunity against North back in the first half of the season, and, Gonzalez, who plays with a full motor running at all times, realized what how big the game actually was.
“We had the heart to get it done, and it was a lot different than last time, when we let down,” he noted. “I was here last year when we had a bad record, and it was hard to deal with. But we worked hard this offseason and now we have the confidence to win these types of games.”
Last year was hard, for sure, as the Jags win just four games and lost 26. Coach Lalo Rios had a feeling that this year’s bunch was going to turn it around, and now, with a huge home win that keeps them in fourth place, his prediction is looking pretty reasonable.
“I was laughing at the end of the game over something and some of the guys were like, ‘Hey, it’s not over yet,’” said Gonzalez, who produced 10 points and four boards in the telltale second half. “But I told them not to worry, it’s because I have confidence. We all do, and now we want to keep it going and make the playoffs.”
It marked the fourth loss in five games for the Coogs, who came off a 57-55 double-overtime win against P-SJ-A. Too much standing around cost the team Tuesday, as the Jags were more aggressive and got into their offense more consistently. That passivity was echoed in the number of free-throw attempts: Econ had 26 while North got just nine.
In the girls’ game which preceded the boys’ (as the doubleheader rotation switched from here on out), Vicky Pena continued her hot scoring with 19 points for North, which won to get to 8-2 in 31-5A. The Lady Coogs bombed in eight three-pointers, led by four from junior Dani Vargas, to surge ahead of the Lady Jags (2-8), who hung tough for a half before losing steam.
NOTES: The Jag boys fell back into a tie for fourth Saturday as they lost to EHS while North was taking out Pharr North. EHS and North both won on the girls’ side, and each clinched a playoff spot with five tilts remaining in the regular season.