Jan. 15, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

After these two had engaged in a memorable battle back on Dec. 11, the rematch was sure to be equally competitive and entertaining, as Rivalry Games tend to be. The Lady SaberCats, who had thrown an authentic scare into the Lady Bobcats before fading to a 56-45 defeat, toed the line at home Friday to see if they could play with the same energy. And the other thing Lottie Zarate wanted her club to do: keep EHS off the offensive boards, as Dec. 12 the Lady ‘Cats had netted 10 second-chance points in the second half, one of the keys to the decision.

The second time around, Vela was able to do each of these things, only not for four quarters. The Lady Sabes clubbed their way to a plus-13 rebound edge but EHS once again made the offensive glass its home too often for Vela’s good. Led by guards Andrea Molina and Lauren Vega (31 points between them), the team showed intensity in a second-half comeback that saw them trim a 15-point deficit to just four late in the game. 

EHS, now 8-0 in District 31-6A, was sound enough to withstand the strong run by the home five, though, and capped a 56-49 victory for the season sweep of its bitter rival. Senior Daysha Tijerina was a warrior for Coach J.D. Salinas with 14 points and eight rebounds while the freshmen phenoms pitched in well too, especially power forward Janai Coleman, who had five points and four boards in the fourth period as EHS sought to counter the onrushing Lady Sabes, now 5-4 in league play and trying to hold on to fourth spot in the loop. Ninth-grader Kimora Fagan also had her moments Friday, with six points in the third period and some killer D.

In all, a fine comeback by Vela fell short, as the EHS defense was tough, its leadership timely, its calm tested and proven under fire. The teams were horrendous from the free-throw line down the stretch, making just nine of 23 in the fourth for 39 percent. But EHS found the mark for its last three points at the line, with senior Julissah Santa Maria hitting one and Tijerina two to close it out.


This had the makings of a high-scoring affair as EHS came in averaging 62.1 ppg, or second best in recent history behind 2010-11’s hefty 69.5 ppg average largely achieved by three big-timers: Laura Torres, Mich Mercilita, and Bianca Casas. Vela is pumping along with a healthy 57.3 clip this season, better than the previous best average for a season (54.0) set back in 2014-15.

But Rivalry Games also have a way of slowing things down a tad, introducing some nerves into the equation as well. When good friends turn foes, it can be tricky, with hustle and heart counting as much as talent and pedigree.

To start, EHS was sharper on the road, jetting out to a 12-6 lead thanks to a three from freshman Madie Martinez, though Vela ran its sets nicely for a cutting backdoor layup by the speedy Vega. When Tijerina ran the court after a Lady Sabe turnover it was 14-6, and only late hoops from soph Fey Vazquez and junior Aneyda Chapa narrowed the gap to five at 15-10.

After that, Vela seemed a bit tight, and EHS took advantage, building a 20-10 lead when senior A’nnika Saenz made a super pass and kept on rolling to the goal, making it in time for an offensive rebound and score.

Facing a problem, Zarate’s crew fell back on the skills of Molina, the veteran who surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career recently, joining a star-studded group including Kayleen Rios, Bianca Cortez, Ariel Rodriguez, and Jayda Muhammad in the rarified program air above the century mark. Lauren, you’re next, Kid.

Molina canned seven points in the period, and after leading 27-14 at one stage, EHS started feeling the blows of a determined underdog. Just when it looked like a narrow run affair, though, the Lady Bobcats again hit the boards with a vengeance. Junior Marliza Mendoza fought for a loose ball and pitched to Tijerina for a three, and after a Molina basket it was 30-21 at the half.

In the third, Fagan flashed her athleticism with a couple of quick and fancy fast break drives to the basket and fellow fish Emily Carranco blocked a shot and later scored at the dish off a Fagan feed. Vela did not help itself by blowing two layups in the third, and then Saenz made it 46-34 by driving, stopping, brushing away a defender with a matador ball fake, and popping in a 12-footer near the horn. Friday, Saenz had nine points and nine boards while Santa Maria, very effective in the first half on defense, would chip in nine points and five rebounds. 

Earlier in the quarter, a microcosm of the struggle, as Vega sailed in a three-ball but Martinez of EHS came right back down to sink one of her own; the visitor had the answers when things got hot.

On came Coleman for the fourth and she immediately lifted her squad with a free throw, a block and a score at the rim. The 5-9 newcomer averages 9.3 ppg and 10.2 rpg and could end up as one of the few city kids to average a double-double for a season. For the sake of history, a fecund muse The Observer can never ignore: Mercelita did it twice, as did EHS banger Patty Lopez. Morgan Brown (!) of Econ accomplished it once back in 2007-08, and so did Vela’s Emily Azubell during the school’s debutante season of 2012-13. EHS post Anaka Garcia made that grade as did Sylvia Perez, the classy Lady Jag post, who doubled twice. The list is pretty short (no freshmen … yet).

Anyway, enough ancient scribblings. We in the Now.

Vela got back to within nine in the fourth on an inbounds hoop from Vazquez and then Vega swooped for a sweet floater just over the reach of the onrushing Coleman. But EHS was up 52-43 after Coleman converted inside. The Lady Sabes rushed back with Chapa (game-high 12 caroms) working hard against the formidable Coleman and senior Dylan Cantu knocking in a pair of free throws. 

It got crazy when Vega fired in a triple to cut the hill to four at 52-48, the closest margin since back in the first period at 14-10. Tijerina was a dream by earning free throws, as Vela’s rough-edged Destine Garcia (seven boards) fouled out. 

Down the stretch Vela was crucially called for an illegal screen and managed just one point more, a charity toss from Chapa; the home side missed six free throws in the final eight minutes. Tijerina helped clinch things with yet another offensive board/hustle play and Fagan chipped in with two late blocks. The Lady ‘Cats made more plays, so they won.

EHS had what it took to get the job done, even though Vela refused to quit and just kept on coming. After having been idle for what seemed like ever (EHS two weeks, Vela even longer) due to COVID issues in Mission, Pharr, and beyond, the rivals will be mega-busy the next few weeks. Vela is set to play four times in about 10 days, EHS five as the league has to hump it to get contests completed before the deadline for certification of playoff combatants, which looms on the horizon. Right now, EHS is first with Pharr North and P-SJ-A just behind. Vela is vying with Mission for a dance ticket and faces the Lady Eagles late this month. Might be for the spot.

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