Jan. 28, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
Two senior stars, each at times leading the way and each at others following the lead of her honorary hoops sister. Minutes after firing the engines to another district championship for their school, Daysha Tijerina and A’nnika Saenz stood before the mike and camera, doing their usual tag team for the benefit of Valley basketball fans. They answered questions from The Monitor as easily as they pass, cut and shoot on the court, yielding the speaking floor with precision, playing off each other’s comments, and generally killing the dual interview. Just like they had just killed any chance the Lady Raiders had entertained of an upset.
No, the Lady Bobcats were not to be denied Thursday, clinching the program’s sixth title in nine seasons under Coach J.D. Salinas, and now at 15-0 they stand one win away from completing a perfect league slate. It wasn’t easy, against a physical and athletic Pharr North squad that came over to EHS with just one 31-6A defeat. But just as they had done in the first-round showdown against the Black Attack, the Lady ‘Cats relied on their seasoned veterans, and also on contributions from members of the much ballyhooed freshman class. This time, the mix was good for a 54-46 victory, during which Salinas’ team trailed just twice – late in the first period – and established themselves as the champion. Again. They are now 19-3 overall and haven’t lost since Nov. 28.
“We knew we were the better team and we had that mindset going in,” said Saenz, who paced all scorers with 21 points on a night when the three seniors – including valuable Julissah Santa Maria – were honored before it all got started. “I knew this was probably my last game here at home and I’ve had two ACL’s … I haven’t played that much, so I knew it was my time to step up and score tonight. That’s what we needed.”
Score she did, a district season high, and two particular baskets stood out Thursday. Each came at the end of a quarter and continued the program tradition for execution in the waning moments. Pharr North senior Carolina Sanchez bombed in three bombs in the first and the Lady Raiders led 16-15 and then 18-17 before Saenz cruised down in the closing seconds to send one softly into the net at the buzzer. Later, as EHS engaged in a slugfest with a worthy and determined foe, Saenz again ended the round with a bucket; this time it came at 0:01 and gave the Lady ‘Cats a 4-point halftime lead. After lofting a 10-footer from out front, Saenz gave a glance at the scoreboard as the seconds ticked away. Perfect timing, money ball there. A champion’s shot.
Tijerina had knocked down a pair of threes in the half, and freshman Madie Martinez, same. The Lady ‘Cats average 7.4 treys a night in district and had made 10 or more in their past three games – including wins over North Tuesday and Wednesday. In this weird season when COVID postponements have forced teams to sit for long periods and then make games up in bang-bang fashion, the winner of the league was going to be talented, yes, but also deep and well-conditioned. Which describes Salinas’ crew to the letter.
The Lady Raiders would tire as the night wore on, but EHS never wavered, as it has superior depth and one could argue, better physical endurance. Timely appearances from freshman Kimora Fagan were part of the difference, as she came in to defend Sanchez well, and also knocked in a three-point shot – one of eight for EHS, to four for the Lady Raiders – in the second quarter. The halftime count was 28-24, EHS, and then the collective toughness was set to take over.
“That was our mindset,” said Tijerina, who scored 14 Thursday with six rebounds. “We knew we were stronger, that it would be a competitive battle, but we were like, alright, bring it.”
Pharr North did that, as after Sanchez cooled down, lefty sophomore Emma Lucio got going. Tall and aggressive, Lucio would end with 17 points and eight rebounds, with teammate Trinity Bane, the 6-2 junior, would add 11 points and 16 rebounds. But one of the reasons that the visitor could not get back square had to do with 33. No. 33. Janai Coleman, Beast.
The first time these two met, Dec. 15, EHS’s freshman ball of force and energy had collected 22 points and 20 mammoth rebounds in a real eye-opening outing. Though she only scored four points in the rematch, the high-motor newcomer barged to 13 caroms and seemed to be everywhere at times, contesting shots, tipping loose balls to teammates, and generally playing great basketball. How high is her upside? How high can you point?
“I think they were determined to limit her this time, because she had done so much in the first game,” said Salinas of Coleman’s monster effort in the 7-point road win. “But Janai was able to really stay the course tonight, she found ways to battle even though I think she realized that scoring was not going to be there. She held her own against one heckuva team and I am proud of her.”
Coleman and Bane engaged in a monumental struggle inside, but the former is more agile, as indicated by a second period sequence. Bane fooled Coleman with a fake, but instead of settling for that, the EHS frosh recovered like a cobra, jumping back into Bane’s face as she prepared to shoot. The shot missed, and Bane’s face was like, whoa, thought she was done … Nope. Surprise! I’m back.
For the record, Coleman is shooting a cool 61 percent from the floor and has managed a rare feat: the bounding future star has collected more offensive rebounds this year than grabs at the other end. That’s sick.
PUTTING IT AWAY
Quality began to rise to the top in the third, although the Lady ‘Cats would have to scramble to finish it, which one would expect against a fine adversary. Makes it better that way, really, and this game was excellent, a true classic in that sense. One versus Two, marbles available. Saenz jammed for seven in the period, Tijerina connected again from downtown, and the rotating defensive trio of Fagan, Martinez, and Santa Maria had effectively quieted Sanchez. Coleman tipped a rebound to Fagan to start the break and soon Saenz made it 37-31 with a floater. Though she is still working her way back from the surgeries, the UTRGV signee has learned quite a lot during the difficult long, lonely months of rehab.
“I think it boils down to maturity, being smarter,” said Saenz, who has averaged eight assists down the season homestretch. “Coach is always telling us, basketball is a game of spurts, runs, that you have to get the right mentality to handle it when the other team makes a run. For me, personally, it’s about knowing when to really turn it on, make my own spurt. Tonight I wanted to do that.”
The teams were visibly tired during the third but EHS, with its depth, came right on ahead as North started to misfire and do some complaining, work a few elbows, you know, stuff. But EHS was on it now, and though the Lady ‘Cats – especially the ferocious Coleman – gave as good as they got, there were no illegalities from the girls in Red and Blue.
North crept to within three at one stage but EHS surged again behind a Tijerina jumper, leading 42-34 after three. The rugged Tijerina also stepped in to draw a charge on Lucio, and that was a huge play.
The tenor of the game came clear on one sequence in the fourth when no fewer than seven of the 10 kids on the court had a hand in a wild, loose-ball melee on which possession changed sides four times. Such was the desire of these teams to get the W. What a game.
When EHS reassumed command with a six-point lead, the seniors took control in the spread, and their patience led to the free throw line after several drives against a desperate Lady Raider D that was flat gassed. EHS, only a 54 percent group from the stripe, made six of nine in the quarter to stave off the fading enemy, and Martinez (a neat steal when Bane put it on the floor, a leaping block of a Sanchez shot) came up with some superb moments. At the end, Tijerina and Saenz broke the press with aplomb, operating in tandem as they have done for four glorious seasons. And that led to the net. Cutting, that is.
Salinas was breathless in the post-game din, but he took the mike to laud not only the seniors but all of the Lady Bobcats, who each got their snip and snap with the twines. When he got started talking to the media while the girls scissored up, they waited for him to finish, clapping and cheering him up to complete the venerable and symbolic rite of passage and success. If they can defeat P-SJ-A Monday, the Lady ‘Cats will have accomplished a feat that last happened in 2017-18, when EHS was 14-0 in league play. The past two seasons they have been 11-1, losing to Weslaco each campaign but earning the first-place tag anyway. They were 12-2 in 2016-17, sharing the title with rival Vela.
The annals also note that EHS was 14-2 in 2012-13, and put three straight 11-3 marks together from 2008 to 2010. Even further back, the dynasty began under Fernando Livas and continued under Raquel Carmona, to the tune of three one-loss district seasons consecutively, starting in 2000-01, and an eventual run of three 12-0 records from 2004 to 2006. We’re talking Shae McDowell, Athena Lopez, Victoria Dominguez into the saintly Big 3 of Marah Guzman, Liz Olvera, and Gina Ferrer, pure hardwood nobility. The program’s overall district count in that illustrious period? Just 73-3, that’s all.
At any rate, Salinas, who was an assistant under Carmona, has engineered his own shining wing of the program hoops museum, with six championships so far. The best part of Thursday was knowing that despite the pending graduation of the core of the modern Dynasty – tears, for real – the Lady ‘Cats will welcome back four amazing freshmen who will have become sophomores. And the Lady Raiders will be back too, ready to try their luck anew. These two have taken part in many great scraps through the years, just like the earlier Dynasty battled with Harlingen South and later Weslaco, not to mention some very powerful Edinburg North squads.
It’s the gift that keeps on giving, this program, and now to see if they can wrap up 16-0, and head into the playoffs for a deep run. Pretty probable, sez here.