Feb. 11, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for game photos
To be honest, the teams could have played for 20 more hours, reminiscent of the Old School dance marathons of the Depression ‘30s, and Los Fresnos would still not have won. But the Lady Falcons gave it a heartfelt shot against EHS Thursday, and are to be lauded for their effort, hustle, and unwillingness to give in.
The fact is, this was a No. 4 seed on the road with long odds against it, a club with very little offensive firepower to spare. The No. 1 seed, on the other hand, possesses one of the most productive attacks in the Valley and has for some time. So that’s why the 54-27 result in bi-district was slightly puzzling.
On one hand, the Lady Bobcats ran to their 20th victory of the season by eventually doubling up the opponent. On the other, it had to be one of the least scintillating overall performances this state-ranked group has given all season. Not to be unkind, obviously, one surmises that the time-worn axiom is still apt: the best teams find a way to come out on top even when they’re not having their best night.
That is the long and short from Thursday, as the Lady Bobcats move on to the second round and continue a campaign that has had tons of upside and many memorable moments. There are surely more highlights to come, as observers have gotten used to masterclass evenings from the Red and Blue when it comes to girls’ hoops.
Part of the difficulty in the bi-district match was a clash of styles, part of it was preparation – or lack of time to do it. The Lady Bobcats, facing a slower, less agile opponent, had planned on employing heavy doses of the fullcourt press for one of the few times all season. In the past, J.D. Salinas has used that defensive strategy to turn opposing backcourts into Jell-O, and he’s had the studs that could do it. This season, the pandemic has meant that no team, anywhere, has had the practice time it takes to put items like the press into full effect. It takes more than just saying “do it,” to make it a Thing, and the coaches understand that.
Nonetheless, EHS has the type of athletes who can make mincemeat out of enemy attempts to try and bring the ball up court and set up shop. The wildcard Thursday was that if a team wants to press, it has to make shots, and this, the Lady Bobcats did not do with anything approaching their regular regularity.
Suffering through an at times subpar shooting night, including a 1-for-10 effort from three-point range, EHS was forced to gut this one out, and luckily, as stated, it has the personnel to succeed in myriad ways. Again, the mark of an outstanding program: it pushes through on off nights, it finds a path, and this, too, the Lady Bobcats did very well.
Instead of running the court and popping long ones, the home side dug in and scrapped with a pesky foe. Los Fresnos was not going to clinch any dribbling or shooting contests in bi-district, but Coach Rebecca Valdez’ team was going to work and strive, just like she did as a terrific high school player with McAllen High back in the not so distant past.
The result was a game shy of style points but high on effort. Short on deftness but replete with hustle and moxie from both quintets. And it is to the credit of Salinas’ highly favored girls that they were able to get with the program on a frustrating, uncharacteristic night, grinding out the ticket to the next round.
FITS AND STARTS
The die was pre-cast early when EHS made a steal and Julissa Santa Maria fed a streaking Daysha Tijerina for a layup. Next, freshman Emily Carranco made a block at one end and then soon spotted up for a short J at the other. Classmate Jenai Coleman, who was to end as Girl of the Game, ripped down an offensive rebound and fed Tijerina (10 points for the night) for another layup.
Although they were not shooting the lights out, the Lady ‘Cats were coming alive in dribs and drabs. They led 12-5 at the end of one with senior A’nnika Saenz finding a defensive board and lasering a long pass to a cruising Kimora Fagan, who converted. Then came another Coleman assist, this time to the dogged Santa Maria as the buzzer sounded. Lil’ Jules played mad defense all night.
Interesting subtext here: sometimes freshmen can play without self-consciousness, unaware figuratively if not literally of the gravity of the moment. Seniors, knowing that one slip betwixt cup and lip and their careers might be over, occasionally tend to force the matter, overreach, get tight, etc. Happens.
Los Fresnos was, if anything, up for the fight. A strong rebounding team with three good-sized kids down low but not much to speak of in the backcourt, the Lady Falcons were on their way to a plus-eight margin on the glass. But they could not hit their shots, either and were guilty of many blunders in ballhandling. Some EHS-induced.
Steadily, the Lady ‘Cats took advantage, as Saenz drove into the lane and delivered an insane no-look strike of a pass to junior Larissa Martinez, who scored. Not known as a huge offensive threat, Martinez is a hard-nosed kid of impeccable family lineage who frankly was magnificent Thursday, putting three layups in the books during the second quarter when some of her teammates were having trouble finding the range. What a super sight to see: a kid who has bided her time, worked in and out of the rotation, and come out the other side unbowed to become a bona-fide difference maker when her team needs it most. Brilliant, we see what you did there, 21!
A 17-4 run in the period installed EHS as the dominant power, with a 29-16 halftime lead. But there was some vexation on the side, no doubt. The playoffs will do that, for as suggested, it’s win or go home. The One Versus Four matchup has upended more than a few favorites down through the years. But EHS is just too good for that.
The defense had been the reason for the second-quarter run, as the Lady Bobcats sank some shots and got into the press, Martinez in the middle of the action on one of the Los Fresnos bigs stationed in the center of the press-breaking set-up. But in the third, the home side’s woes returned, and Los Fresnos outscored the Lady Bobcats 9-6, coming to within 10 at one point.
It’s not that EHS was necessarily worried, really. But just say that Coleman picked a perfect time to remind the crowd why she is the best prospect the program has had in many, many years.
Running the court, grabbing boards, and using her deceptively quick first step to blow by defenders, the 5-9 newcomer was by far the best kid on the wood in the final eight minutes, hammering and flying to 11 points, four rebounds, and a couple more killer passes. To start the quarter, she made a tremendous catch of a high lob from Tijerina to score at the rim amid a foul and make it 38-25, after the free throw. She and Carranco surrounded a helpless Lady Falcon and forced the tie-up and change of possession EHS’s way, and even when she picked up her fourth foul soon after, Coleman Just. Kept. On. Balling.
Most players, when they get the fourth, will take it easy, play it safe, walk the low road. Not Coleman. She stuffed the living daylights of a Los Fresnos shot, grabbed the ball and took off. A force of nature, and burgeoning basketball IQ to boot.
After Carranco flashed her passing skills with an assist to Tijerina, Coleman came down on the next possession and knocked in a three-ball. She can do everything. Everything.
With about four minutes to go, the rout was finally on as Madie Martinez made a steal, as she is wont to do, and found Coleman, who drove hard and fast to the bucket to make it 42-27. Los Fresnos at this time measured less-than-zero gas in the tank and would score just a single deuce in the period, but this does not take away the fact that those girls had come to compete. Junior Sarahi Jones, a 5-11 kid who can play, was especially dangerous at times.
But Coleman’s a kid who can really, really play, and next she drew foul shots with a quick foray to the rack. She encored with a play on which she slyly elevated above a Lady Falcon and pawed down a one-handed rebound, making in the next instant a powerful bounce pass downcourt to a racing teammate.
To cap her night of ability personified, EHS’s Freshman Phenom scooped an offensive rebound – for the year, she has more caroms on the offensive glass than the defensive end, it bears repeating – and slipped in a slick lefty layup to give her unit points 49 and 50.
Fellow newbie Martinez then was quickest to a loose ball – again, which is her way – and gracefully cruised into the frontcourt, whereupon she went behind the back with a French pastry and was fouled in the act of shooting.
Subtext redux: freshman, well, they don’t really get it sometimes, but they get it, you get me? They just hoop and in doing so they occasionally can help the veterans get unwound in a tough spot.
Heading into area, one imagines that the natural order of things will reassert itself. Bi-district was a one-off in many respects and the Lady ‘Cats will go forward knowing that on any given night, if one kid is down, another will step up. Thursday it was L. Martinez, exploding on the scene when it was called for, and it was Coleman taking the stage for a starring role down the stretch.
A good lesson, indeed, and it’s all in the process. Hard to build chemistry during a season where the practices, the together time, is severely curtailed. But teams that have faith and work ethic, that listen to their coaches, and that battle through patches of “eh,” well, those are the squads that keep going in the playoffs.
Be humble, sit down … and get back up, swinging.EHS … moving on, bro.