Dec. 22, 2020
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
No breezy summer league run at Econ Tuesday, no carefree outdoor romp at Memorial either. This was a desperate possession battle, a bloody brawl between determined rivals, each with a plan to confound the other. So, no fast breaks or flashy highlight sequences, really, just good, hard Old School basketball by possession, each chance becoming more vital with the decreased number of opportunities usually attendant in such a steady-paced, rock-ribbed bout.
Coming into this road test, Vela understood that slowing down stellar junior Ray de Leon – no matter how hard it might generally seem – was going to be part of the step by step. Enjoying one of the finest seasons in Valley history so far, to the tune of 30 ppg, the 6-1 leaper was going to figure in everyone’s plans, actually. The question was, which of the supporting cast members of the 9-2 Jags would be able to take some of the pressure off Econ’s prolific stat machine?
Coach Lucio Rodriguez didn’t know which of his SaberCat teams would show up for the looming 31-6A showdown, opining beforehand that he would rather see the one that clobbered North earlier in the slate, and not the one that lost to a middling P-SJ-A five a few games on. Carlos Ramos of the Jags was thinking that if his guys could give the relentless de Leon (who leads the team in all major categories) some assistance, the resurgence out east could continue apace. These two tied for the league title two years back, remember, marking the third straight year of improvement for the Jags, but last season was a striking, negative blip on the screen for them, as they finished 3-9 and out of the postseason running.
Perennial Valley king Vela, winner of a robust 66 percent of its games in nine seasons, has been co-champ or better in six of the last seven runs – a crown for North in 2017-18 the only non-title season during the stretch – and Rodriguez has been working overtime to try and get this unseasoned new group into first-place form. The SaberCats, who surely have the potential to compete for the marbles, were 3-1 in league play coming in, the Jags 3-0. As a spate of postponements roiled the city hoops waters to start the week, it was nice to know that this collision was going to take place. Christmas … Present … Open … Early. Kaboom!
It became obvious from the get-go that the visitor was not going to engage in a track meet with de Leon and the Jags, as the first period yielded just 17 total points, the half a mere 37. It was nip and tuck the whole way, with neither team gaining more than a 4-point advantage and there occurring nine ties and numerous lead changes through this taut thriller. One is again reminded that low-scoring, possession hoops doesn’t have to be boring.
As seems appropriate, it came down to the final minute, when Vela attempted to hold onto the lead and the Jags sought yet one more detonation from the explosive de Leon. He was to finish with 32 points and none were more important the final three, which came on a driving lay-in and subsequent free throw with 0:09 that lifted Econ to a 47-45 victory, mirroring similarly close successes of the recent past (46-44 at Vela in 2017-18 and 50-46 at Vela a year later). Though the Sabes had won nine of 14 tries lifetime against the Orange, their last-ditch foray to the hole resulted in a traveling violation, cementing the key result for the home boys.
If the whole afternoon had been riveting, then the fourth period was classic drama, the teams tied at 30 after three and each throwing massive punches at the adversary to grab momentum in the last eight minutes. With lanky junior Jacob Rodriguez asserting himself for nine in the quarter, the Sabes at times looked ready to salt away the W, taking the lead right off the last bat and hanging on for dear life.
However, when Econ’s Jorge Loredo tied it at 42 after a smart feed from pesky role player Rolando Moreno, the complementary kids had come through. Loredo is the only senior for Ramos this season, and he’d stroked a corner three-ball near the end of the third to make his mark. The stocky Moreno, who has dynamite Chicano Hair, circa 1970, made many hustle plays for the Orange Tuesday, which was fortunate because starter Dalys Hernandez missed the game via quarantine (not ill). Orly Martinez did his part for the cause with three resounding blocked shots, as the Jags worked to show that they are anything but a one-man squad in 2020-21.
Vela didn’t want to end it this way, though. Rodriguez had started the period with a tough, swooping baseline score and Victor Silva (13 points, three blocks – two on de Leon) later handed his club a 1-point lead with a stickback. Along the way, junior Aiden Avelar (pretty good hair also, for the record) had knocked in money free throws and Tony Requena, heart and soul that he is, had pulled off a tremendous fake and score. Stopping on a peseta in the key, he smoothly lost two defenders with a ball fake, kept his pivot foot and scooped in a chippie as the Jags went forlornly flying by. Dirty, man, filthy dirty.
So this is where we were, each team performing at high caliber, 42s on the board.
Which plan would ultimately win the day? The shizzle, this game.
At 1:45, Rodriguez came down and launched in a cool three-point make, at which point de Leon missed a long one. Instead of hanging his head, though, the guy who Ramos says is All-Everything at both ends of the court produced a steal and a deuce to cut the deficit to a single marker.
Vela up 1 with the ball with 0:45 left but de Leon and Loredo pounced on the inbounds recipient, harassing the Sabes so harshly that a rare 10-second call was obtained, much to the chagrin and disbelief of the Vela universe. No matter, rock to Econ with 35 ticks alive. Then, a careless pass and a Vela steal, dashed Orange hopes, and would this one end with the Blue and Black on top? Not so fast, said the fates. Somehow the ball soon ended up on the floor in the Vela backcourt with no fewer than six kids in variously colored jerseys scrambling for it. De Leon popped out with the prize and hot-footed it to the tin, chiming with an and-one to make it 47-45.
That is how it wound up, and though it sounds sort of trite, both foes put on a display of outstanding heart and skill. Neither deserved to lose.
Econ came in averaging 67 ppg, Vela just 49, or less than the school’s girls’ side, to be fair. The Jags had faced prime obstacles in Weslaco and Los Fresnos, losing each clash, but Ramos said there was method to the madness.
“First time I’ve done it, really, making a very tough schedule,” he explained before the tip. “We need those games to get us ready, last year we had a deceptive record, we were competitive in most of the games, our average loss was like six points. Playing some tough non-district teams, I figured it would give us chances to improve in finishing close ball games.”
This was to be one such outing.
Vela was five up, seven down overall as Rodriguez has fiddled with the rotation, knowing that for the first time in a while the Sabes don’t have the experienced numbers they’ve enjoyed in the past. In fact, he would play just six kids Tuesday.
With their motion/handoff set, the Sabes attacked with patience in the first, the underrated Silva canning a couple of looks and his team looking a tad more aggressive, especially on the boards.
Sometimes, de Leon is so good that the rest of the kids can get lulled to sleep watching him break defenders down off the dribble and elevate with a knife-edge to the hoop, where he can score with either hand, easy. But de Leon disembarked sluggishly Tuesday, missing some shots, turning it over, and getting his stuff slapped back at him twice. In the past a slightly mercurial sort as many youngsters will be, de Leon has now mastered his maturity to act as the yin to the yang that Ramos smilingly calls, “a whole lot of swag.”
He regrouped in the second to ring the bell for 10 points, all but one of his team’s total, and it was 19-18, Jags at the half. Requena, who can do a little of whatever you want out there, had pitched in a hoop and three out of four from the line to counter de Leon’s fine quarter. Ray had knocked in a pretty three late in the period but been flagged with a technical for taunting, yin and yang. Econ had showed its coaching by pulling the ball out with less than a minute to go, getting de Leon’s bomb as the result.
NOT A HALT
Loredo came up with a steal for the one-on-none to give his team a 23-20 lead early in the third, but Avelar, who continues to gain seasoning at the lead guard and can also get some boards, countered with a set shot for three, and the tone was re-set at tit for tat all the way. Loredo again came up large with that aforementioned looper from the corner (30-27, Jags) only to see Silva make a block and then race down to eventually can a trey for the tie at 30 heading into the fourth. Whaddagamebro.
It was that kind of theater: no margin of error for mistakes, concentration and poise had to be tight. With de Leon romping for a dozen points in the clinching section, the Jags rambled to 4-0 for the year, but it was even-Steven from pillar to post. Requena and Rodriguez had 11 each, Silva his 13, Avelar 8. As expected, the magnificent de Leon was the breadwinner for his mates, getting 32 of 47, with Loredo (seven), sweet shooter Joel Rios (five, a three) chipping in. Junior M.J. Barrientos, who had scored 51 points in three previous district games, had just two against Vela, but he was front and center on D and kept the ball moving with alacrity to its eventual, usual destination, de Leon.
The Sabes had done what they planned, keeping the game in the 40s, and had enough fine performances to get the W. That they did not is not solely down to de Leon, though it is plain to all that if one is looking for an All-Valley MVP at this youthful juncture of the season, No. 2 in Orange is your man.
After tucking away the narrow and contested result, Econ’s main cog spoke about it.
“The main goal here is to win, to win district and get into the playoffs and get some wins,” he said as he unshod and gathered gear. “Truth is, I can score … a lot … but it works best when everyone else steps up. And I know I have trust in my teammates, they can step up, they did it tonight.”
De Leon noted that slowdown games are not his favorite, and that makes sense because with his size, strength and athleticism, who is going to contain the kid for long in transition? Waiting.
“Yeah, it’s tougher to play this kind of game, when teams have a plan against you,” he added, nodding wearily as if he knew that this would not be the last time in 2020-21 that opponents will slow it down, break out the ancient box-and-one, or try some other gimmick to impede his record-setting prowess.
The last two Cats to average 20 ppg in a season were the sublime Aaron Olvera of EHS (did it twice, 21.0 and 21.5, as the decade turned) and the scintillating lefty Antoine Woodard (21.2 in 2017-18). Vela phenom Ryan Garza, EHS post Gabe Rivas, North’s Brian Beltran, all got close but not to 20.
If you’re talking about hitting for 30 a night, well, one has to head east, and bring back dusty memories of 6-11 Weslaco wonder Tommy Barker, who abused the Valley for 32 ppg and 20 rpg (!) back in his senior season of 1972. That superb fellow went on to four years in the NBA, by the way.
At any rate, water under the bridge for now, and de Leon capped the wild day by letting loose a secret that helps him keep his head amid the barrage of attention over 30-point nights (he has six now, season LOW of 23).
“I just tell myself, if I miss a shot, to forget it, totally forget it,” he advised. “And just come back stronger.”
THE REST OF THE GANG, UPCOMING SKED
EHS and North engaged in an equally competitive slugfest Tuesday, with the Cougars notching their first 31-6A victory, 63-54. The Bobcats (0-5) led for much of the night until the second half as seniors Aaron Gonzalez and Aaron Lopez heated up from outside and 6-7 Eddie Gonzalez came up with several blocks down low.
North (1-3) hosts P-SJ-A Dec. 29, then is at Juarez-Lincoln Jan. 2 and at home against the Jags Jan. 5. Econ is next in action a week from now at Pharr North and welcomes improved La Joya Jan. 2 before the battle with the Coogs. As for Vela, the slate has a home game Dec. 29 against La Joya, a bye, and then Pharr North at home Jan. 5, representing an important stretch indeed. EHS is off Dec. 29 and starts the new calendar year with tilts at P-SJ-A and then at home versus Lincoln Jan. 5.