Feb. 9, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
It was only fitting that he grabbed the final defensive rebound of the night Tuesday, to finish North’s 58-50 home win over Econ in its season finale. This one meant a ton to the Cougars, who forged a probable three-way tie for second in District 31-6A, but it was also of great importance to Ethan Gomez.
Gomez, the sharpshooting senior, had missed the start of the district campaign and without going into detail, he knew he would have to come back strong.
“I put myself in that position, it was my fault,” said the 5-10 guard after the victory, during which he poured in a career-high 24 points to lead the way. “To know I had to sit out, that I had sort of let my friends down … it hurt me, it really did. And I was determined to come back and play as well as I could. Put it this way: now I understand what being a student-athlete means!”
Raise your hand if you’ve never stumbled, honestly. We’ve all been there. But the way Gomez has energized North since his return shows that sometimes when a cat has a shot at redemption, he grabs it and uses it. In a game the Coogs had to have, Gomez also came down with six rebounds. He hit a pair of bombs early as North (11-5, 15-8) took charge, canned two more in the third when the Coogs beat back some stern challenges from the undermanned Jags (10-5, 16-7), and had six points in the fourth to help his team – his friends – seal the deal.
Additionally, Gomez’ flashy dribbling skills came in handy as the Coogs held the ball for stretches late in the night; he teamed with equally shifty seniors Aaron Gonzalez and Aaron Lopez in keeping the foe at bay. Competing without junior playmaker M.J. Barrientos, the Jags nonetheless made several runs to peck away at North but never led in the game. Junior star Ray de Leon went through a trying evening with Gonzalez and teammates Anthony Thomas and/or Ethan Garza dogging his every step; though he finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, de Leon had to work for everything he got, and without wingman Barrientos, it was an uphill task.
The victory followed a North loss to Mission (OT) a day earlier, and really, this one was supposed to have been played last Friday. But in this season of seasons, postponements have become the norm, and so two city rivals banged into one another a few days late. The Coogs had held productive senior forward Garza out of the Mission loss with an ankle sprain, but he was fit for duty Tuesday. Meanwhile the Jags, who had scored a memorable triumph Feb. 2 by beating La Joya and ending the Coyotes’ 12-game winning streak, had to work without M.J. Luck is some kind of something.
Actually, neither coach was too uptight about the pending battle Tuesday, each saying that this season, given all that has transpired, to be in the playoffs was just fine. And now, it appears that North, by virtue of the season sweep of Econ – Gomez had been instrumental in the 66-54 win back on Jan. 5 out east – will get a higher seed, possibly the two. That will all be worked out in the coming days, but the Jags and Coogs know they’re in: who they play, well, it’s sort of whatever.
In the first encounter, Econ had led about halfway home before the Coogs went on a 20-7 spurt in the third period. This time, the latter didn’t wait that long at all, exploding to a 7-0 advantage highlighted by a quick-release three from the left corner from Gomez.
“Yeah, I like to shoot it but really, my teammates get me my buckets,” Gomez remarked. “I figured this might be my last game here at home, so I wanted to bring it.”
The offensive start was nice, the defense even better as Gonzalez, standing at least six inches shorter than de Leon, maybe more, set to work guarding the league’s top scorer. He used his speed, brain, and underrated strength to force de Leon into three missed shots in the first period, and 6-7 teammate Eddie Gonzalez came up with a suffocating block on the dangerous Jag star.
“We know that when Ray gets into the lane, he’s going to score,” said North coach Rudy Garcia. “And if he doesn’t, he’ll get fouled and make free throws. We wanted Aaron to stay on him, use his quickness and later when Anthony came in, well, he’s just as quick and he really has long arms. With that other kid not playing, we just had to stay with Ray, keep him outside.”
North led 12-5 after one, the Jags missing layups and Gomez contributing another Long Truth, this time while being knocked to the floor. Then the tenor of the night changed, as Jacob Paez started to take over. The big postman has been a threat for North for two seasons but suffered an injury in Football 2020 that slowed his progress in the latest hoops run. But against the Jags, he was an ironclad with 13 points and 15 rebounds, keying a plus-11 team board edge and scoring five put-backs on the offensive glass. He also showed agility and smarts in traffic with a deft interior pass to Eddie Gonzalez for a second-period hoop.
With Gomez ringing the bell from outside and Paez ruling the paint, it was going to be North’s night, especially since the hustling North D was all over de Leon, holding him without a field goal in the quarter. He did hit six from the line, and Coach Carlos Ramos got a clutch three from Orly Martinez (10 points, six boards before eventually fouling out) to stay close. It was just a four-point game when Jorge Loredo ran out after a de Leon steal to hit a lay-in at 0:30.
But after two Gomez free throws, Aaron Gonzalez pilfered one and ran to two more charity tosses with 0:02 left. That was a key swing in the proceedings as Econ faltered down the stretch and saw its deficit double, to 26-18 after a rugged, slow-moving half.
HANGING ON, COMING BACK
Minus the steady ballhandler Barrientos, the Orange had trouble taking care of the basketball, and when North scored twice quickly in the third the lead was 13 and was it curtains? No, because de Leon stole a ball and fed Rolando Moreno for two, and that seemed to fire them up. Moreno cranked a three and soon it was 33-29, North. Gomez, simply sublime Tuesday, sailed a trifecta over the outstretched hand of de Leon, only to see Loredo then answer with his own bomb. Martinez came down and stroked one for the Jags to make it a one-point game at 36-35 with 2:42 to go in the third, and this was back-and-forth excellence befitting a pair of playoff combatants.
Paez then crashed the boards for a stickback and Aaron Lopez converted from downtown for some breathing room. Still, it was just 41-38 after three as de Leon jetted to a pretty, flying hoop near the end.
Just as they had climbed back in though, Econ again experienced handle woes and Paez once again scored inside after an offensive rebound. Dude was an animal!
When Gomez drove the lane for a floater it was 49-41 and Paez kept sweeping the glass and cleaning up. De Leon swooped to the goal for a lefty finger roll to keep it at seven and with 1:23 to play he went airborne for a ridiculously lovely scoop shot. Six-point game and then five on a Martinez free throw. But soph Christian Faz came away with a huge board at 1:11, and Gonzalez plunked in two free throws with a minute left, finishing it. The line was enormous in this showdown, North making 17 of 21 but the Jags, normally a 70-percent club at the stripe, missing nine attempts. Final margin of defeat … eight, ouch.
With some details to be decided, the playoffs are on the way. Though they may drop down a seed or two by missing this chance to get the jump on No. 2, the Jags – provided they get the quarantined Barrientos back sooner than later – will go into the Dance ready to do some damage.
“Hey, we won what, three games in district last year?” Ramos had said before the tip. “This has been a pretty awesome turnaround for us and we’re good with whatever seed we get. Our goal was to make it to the playoffs and then see how far we could go. It still is.”