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DOWN FIGHTING: JAGS EXPIRE IN BI-DISTRICT AFTER HARD-HITTING SLUGFEST WITH WESLACO

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Feb. 20, 2021

By Greg Selber

Click here for game photos

Fact: it was not the lowest-scoring playoff game in Valley basketball history. The search for that would take one back to February 1959, when Class A entry Rio Hondo matched up against a bi-district school called Sundeen (Corpus area, doesn’t exist anymore) and stalled the ball for nearly the entire night, eventually losing by the ignominious score of 6-5.

But certainly for stretches of Saturday’s rugged struggle pitting Econ against Weslaco, the points were few and far between, if not the drama. Perhaps it was because the two faced off not at Econ but at Vela, due to some water issues out east. And perhaps it was because on the scoreboard, there were the SaberCats and Jaguars, Jags as Sabes and um, like, ‘Hey who is who, and I don’t know what.’ At any rate, this was a throwback bi-district clash with plenty of excitement despite its eventual five-quarter tally of just 81 total points.

Econ ended up on the short end of the lazy and deceptive scoreboard, dropping a 43-38 decision to the visiting (sort of) Panthers, and thus ended a pretty cool season for the Orange. After winning 16 times, Coach Carlos Ramos’ squad dropped down to the fourth seed at the race’s wire, and therewith had to contest a No. 1 in the Panthers, champs of 32-6A this odd season.

Really, there were times Saturday when the underdog looked like a fair bet to advance. That it did not is down to a few choice moments during the rough-edged affair, suspended instants in time when the Jags, though determined and energetic, did not quite tick the right box at the right time. They missed a one-and-one opportunity at the end of the first half, when the Panthers had for some reason committed an ill-advised foul as the clock was trying to run out. Earlier, amid a barrage of three-pointers that helped them get off the deck, the Jags were whistled for a technical foul, sort of harsh sez here, after a particularly exuberant oncourt celebration. And late in the night, after having held a 35-29 lead, Econ could have put it to bed and stemmed a furious Weslaco rally if it had managed to convert an open layup that rolled around, and around … but finally, out.

And this is not to cast aspersions upon the effort given by the nominal home side, truly, because the Jags scratched and clawed and fought with grit, showing a refusal to accept defeat. It could have gone either way, and this fact was not lost on Ramos.

“It would have been awesome to win this game, we were there,” stressed Ramos, who went toe to toe with the intimidating ref-hollerer Gabe Valdez of Weslaco on a day when the crowd was loud and ill-tempered at times, the kids worked their butts off, and tension rose steadily toward the rafters as it got closer to decision time. Playoff hoops! Nothing like it. 

“But someone had to lose, and unfortunately it was us,” he continued. “All you can ask for is a chance and we had it. I am proud of our boys, they played hard, and we knew it would be a low-scoring game, based on how Weslaco plays. With that said, I think our guys know that I am expecting great things from them next year.”

As well he should indeed, for the Jags will return almost the whole nucleus of a squad that steamed out to an early lead in District 31-6A and completed a great comeback season following last year’s pothole in the road. The trajectory of the program is still rising, all told, but Saturday came down to what it always comes down to, in a sense. How much help can Ray get from the rest of the gang?

THIS IS TOUGH

It’s no secret anymore that the Jags depend on 6-1 junior slasher Ray de Leon for the bulk of their offensive performance. And while he has been superb this season, averaging nearly 30 ppg and filling the stat sheet in every area, teams have started to try and throw the proverbial wrench into the Orange works by clamping down on him – usually easier said than planned – and hoping that the complementary Jags will not kill them. This was certainly the tack taken by Valdez’ Weslaco five, which was the toughest defensive unit in the Lower Valley district all year. Starting a lineup with three kids on the plus side of 6-foot, the Panthers are also quick on D, and they jump to help with real determination.

De Leon, with a 6-2 kid in his face all night, help-side assistance from a guard, and a supposedly lumbering but actually well-skilled big man waiting in the wings of the paint, was to go through a very difficult afternoon. He ended with 15 points, little more than half his average, but did ignite a Jag rush in the second period by knocking in three long bombs in succession, bringing the fans to their feet as Econ recovered from an early deficit of seven points to assume the lead, which they held from the second quarter into the late fourth.

But his patented drives to the dish were not there very much in bi-district, meaning that it was time for his teammates to step up and join the party. They did this effectively if intermittently, as the hustling Rolando Moreno and the lone senior, Jorge Loredo, combined for 15 points. Moreno slammed to the basket and converted a layup that rolled in as the turgid first quarter came – thankfully, some would say – to an end, Weslaco ahead, 6-4. Moreno also provided some sharp assists, including a feed to junior M.J. Barrientos for a successful trey that tied the match at 13 late in the first half. 

Weslaco, with its big man scoring well, led 15-13 at the break, but then Ramos’ defense, a 2-3 zone with the 5-11 leaper Barrientos in the middle and the long-armed de Leon fronting the post, started to do the do. The Jags outscored Weslaco 16-12 in the fast-moving third with de Leon’s memorable bang-bang-bang joined by some heroics from Loredo, who worked baseline for a tough leaner in traffic, stole one and raced for a hoop, and generally made like a senior should in the big game. He and junior Dalys Hernandez were everywhere, churning and working, making it hard for the Panthers, diving for loose balls and running the court to defend. Meanwhile, Barrientos was impressive, and he would take no fewer than three charges at the defensive end Saturday along with scoring eight points.

The other wild card to the ball game was depth. The Jags did not have it, and Weslaco did, and when both de Leon and Barrientos got into foul trouble – they had three each by the time the third period ended with Econ up, 29-27 – there were troubling clouds on the horizon.

The Jags started the telltale fourth on top and led to just outside the final minute. Loredo’s trifecta off a pass from M.J. had made it 33-29 and Barrientos soon gave the squad a 35-29 bulge. From there, though the official’s whistle continued, the Panthers came back. The Orange was still up, 37-34 after clutch throws from de Leon, but Weslaco canned a long three with 1:17 to go and neither team could manage the winner from there.

The four-minute overtime slot was all Weslaco as de Leon fouled out with 3:21 to go and the Jags could manage only a lone, late free throw from Moreno. The Panthers went back to their inside game which had worked so well early on, getting some good looks from down low to clinch it.Still, as stated it has been a satisfying season for Ramos and his team, and one expects that when the next hoops run approaches, they will be back in the hunt for a district title and some playoff success. No shame here, as the No. 4 stepped hard to the higher seed, giving the Panthers all they wanted in a gutty, creditable performance.

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