Feb. 25, 2021
By Greg SelberClick herefor game photos
Tons of games every year. Hundreds over the years. But only one of these every blue moon, because they are special, unique, few and far between. As a player or fan, you get maybe one or two in a lifetime. A classic that leaves you speechless, breathless, the kind that some time down the road you will wander back to, in the mind’s eye, remembering the sheer exhilaration of having been there, on the court or not.
By far the two best teams in the Valley, slugging it out for a Sweet 16 ticket, before a rowdy crowd on a classy stage at Bert Ogden Arena. The eyes of the whole RGV girls’ basketball world on it, and it comes down to one possession. One.
All the hard work, the grind of a long season pockmarked by the pandemic. Learning how to play with that stupid mask sort of on and dealing with adversity of so many types along the way. And here it is. One possession. All the marbles. One.
The ball, so busy during 32 minutes of wild back-and-forth action, hadn’t even stopped rolling yet. By the time it had come slowly to rest under the glare of the bright lights, one team was screaming and yelling, dog-piling, and taking eye/mind pictures to last a lifetime. The other team was frozen in the moment, paralyzed by the realization, so sudden, that the foe was celebrating. The other team, its members instantly slumping over, spent, lost.
The first-one team was Harlingen, the other was Edinburg, and in one of the greatest, craziest, most hotly contested regional quarterfinals in history, the Lady Cardinals were the ones frolicking and gamboling about, sending social distancing to the dust bin of history after they had managed to sink the last basket with just 0:01 to play. Buzzer-beater, basically.
The last-second winner ended a phenomenal Thursday exhibition by rivals who’d paced the pack in the Valley all year. Harlingen, 23-2 moves on to the Sweet 16 to face a terrifying Judson unit while EHS, 21-5, will have a lifetime to savor on one hand and lament on the other. It was priceless theater, a magical night and those who were among the throngs of rooters at the Vipers’ den will always remember it, fondly or otherwise.
They say that basketball is a game of runs and spurts, and this rematch of the 2018-19 third-rounder – won by EHS in a walk, 54-34 – was the shizzle 2.0. The Lady Bobcats started with a 9-0 flurry after the opening tip but the Lady Cardinals came back with a 10-2 streak. EHS ran off nine in a row in the second period, Harlingen was a big sharper in the third, and the fourth was just pure excellence, the powers combining for 42 points, 21 each.
After senior Daysha Tijerina, simply otherworldly in the fourth with 15 dazzling points, scored to put the Lady ‘Cats ahead, 54-53, Harlingen had seven seconds to answer. Which they did, after a sweet little backdoor cut that resulted in a baseline flip from Callie Cervantes (11 in the last period) that settled into the net just before the buzzer crowed, sending one unit to ecstasy, the other to misery.
It was that kind of a memorable evening, surpassing even the exploits of yore where EHS fell three points short against San Antonio Warren back in 2006 at the regionals. The buzz of the night was also somewhat reminiscent of the wonderful doubleheader at Pan American back in 2009-10, when EHS and North defeated Harlingen and Harlingen South, respectively, to climb into the state’s final 16.
Despite the virus, the postponements, the uncertainty, the Lady ‘Cats had motored to within striking distance of their fourth appearance at the regionals; they had beaten Los Fresnos and Warren (!) to get here, while Harlingen had eclipsed Vela by 17 and SA Harlandale by 18 to glide into the second meeting between the best clubs this campaign, following the 52-40 victory the Lady Cards had pinned on EHS Nov. 13.
This was going to be a different story, because much water has gone under the bridge since then, Harlingen having dominated its district, 32-6A, Edinburg its, 31-6A. And different it was, different from the first matchup and forming so many little games within the game, the rematch.
HAD TO BE THERE
Coming in, EHS had to be a little worried about a few things, among them Harlingen’s depth and tendency to press its opponents into a tenuous night of ballhandling. Surely the Lady Cards were a bit antsy about the Lady ‘Cat three-point shooting ability and their killer combo of great seniors and soon-to-be great freshmen. Both teams got their doses of the medicine, and it was EHS that jabbed the needle first.
Freshman Jenai Coleman drove to hoop for a terrific lefty reverse layup right off the tip and then she corralled an offensive rebound which led to a bucket from senior A’nnika Saenz. Coleman again powered to the rack for two and it was 6-0. Harlingen turned it over against some EHS pressure, freshman Emily Carranco put back in a miss, and 9-0, tweeeet! Timeout. Whoa …
The Lady Cards were rattled, but sophomore Juli Bryant, inserted into the game at this stage, turned the tide with her 6-foot-2 frame. The bigs were active Thursday, with Coleman (11 points, 11 boards, double-double machine) and Carranco (also 11 rebounds, three blocks, she was cool all night) battling Bryant, normally known as a fine volleyball player. For the season the looming soph had averaged just five points and three caroms, but picked a prime moment to shine, coming up with 12 points, 12 boards and four blocks, and most importantly she was to go toe to toe with the EHS tandem of posts, rendering them less effective than they might have been had she not been in the paint.
Now, Harlingen didn’t get here with smoke and mirrors, at all. Along with the inspired play of Bryant, unorthodox little hustler Avery Hinojosa came to the party with a huge effort, getting a couple of threes to go down with her odd, almost cross-handed shooting style, and before long, the Lady Cards were right back in it. EHS led 13-10 at the end of one, and first danger point had been countered, opportunity missed.
Saenz, who finished with 11 points in her last high school contest, slipped in a drive for a 15-10 advantage but the Harlingen momentum was just churning up, and the Lady Cards surged to a 19-17 lead. They made some shots, then got into the pressure, and the fullcourt frenzy they are known for started to get to EHS, which turned it over six times in the period and fell into a five-point halftime deficit. Harlingen had made four bombs in the half, EHS none, and so much for scouting reports sometimes.
BACK FOR MORE
Off that 14-6 second-period edge, Harlingen was up six in the third but just then, the Lady ‘Cats got into high gear. With Carranco pounding inside for rebounds and fellow freshman Kimora Fagan putting her athleticism on display, EHS rallied. Julissah Santa Maria chipped in with a hoop, Tijerina knocked down free throws, and Saenz drilled a trey. Then, Fagan ran the court and made a perfect heads-up pass to Tijerina to make it 28-27, EHS. Later, Coleman stepped back and popped in a triple for a 33-29 lead, and at this point role player Lucero Hernandez came on to grab ferocious rebounds at both ends of the court. Momentum, changed.
But as was the script all night, Harlingen answered with yet another charge, putting five on the board to reclaim the lead by one as the third quarter ended.
As an aside, there was a cast of luminaries in attendance, from all the admins of the EHS district, the mayor, and all the relevant media types, including long-time sportswriter Eladio Jaimez, now the president of the Harlingen school board. Joe Bowling and Kevin Narro (ex Edinburg North outfielder) did the broadcast live on the internet, and one look into the crowd revealed tons of familiar faces. Hey!! What’s up, dude? Hey!
One period to go, eight minutes left to see who was moving on. One team.
Carranco, who quietly goes about her business and usually to very solid effect, forced a Harlingen turnover early on, and then Tijerina exploded, going molten in a run of great plays that will soon be legendary, maybe already. She drove for two as EHS regained the lead, and then at 6:55 she came down and swished a three. She’s done that more than 230 times in four stellar seasons, but this one was enormous. But not quite as enormous as the next one. Scooting back into range after a Harlingen deuce, Tijerina reached the same spot she had been at a minute before. Not gonna guard me? Bang!
It was 41-36 now but Hinojosa, somewhat stymied since the first half by EHS’ diamond-and-one defensive strategy employed midway through, got loose for a three of her own. Later Tijerina crashed the goal for a layup-and-one and Saenz converted a tough leaner in the lane.
The Lady ‘Cats were up five when Fagan tipped a loose ball in the frontcourt and it found Tijerina, who barreled in for the score at 2:39. Seemingly injured on the play, Tijerina it turned out was just low on gas, and was cramping something fierce. But still, 50-43, the biggest lead the Lady ‘Cats had possessed since 9-0. Now it was on the line. Saenz made a wicked block and it became 52-45 on a Carranco make with two minutes left.
Anyone counting the Lady Cards out had probably never heard the ancient cry: Cardinal Spirit Never Dies. Ex Harlingen coach Nora Zamarripa, as some folks will recall, started her Hall of Fame career in the 1980s at Edinburg High before switching counties, and she and her fellow coaches loved that phrase. And it was the phrase that pays at the denouement Thursday.
Facing the fearsome and desperate Harlingen pressure, EHS had issues with turnovers down the stretch, and Cervantes, who had managed just a field goal through three quarters, was steadily cutting into the lead. At 1:27, the Lady ‘Cats missed the front end of a one-and-one, and the Lady Cards rolled to within three. EHS coughed it up against the D and Bryant sank a shot, 52-51 EHS. Next, the Red and Blue beat the press and got fouled in the frontcourt … but missed the one-and-one again. Trouble. Last year the team shot 67 percent from the stripe, down to 60 in 2020-21. And the math hurt at the worst possible juncture.
Cervantes continued her superb fourth period with a two-pointer to give Harlingen its first lead since the close of the third quarter. But with 20 seconds left, Tijerina dashed to the goal and rattled one home in traffic, the crowd’s roar deafening and the tension thick as a goo-glob of Nutella left out on the counter overnight.
The Lady Cards came out of a timeout with about seven seconds left and for six of those, it looked like EHS would edge past them into the Rare Air. But then came the final moment, when Cervantes slipped in and snuffed out the Lady Bobcat candle for the year.
Then it was all net-cutting, joy, and plans for the regional. For one side. For the other, instant gloom. Heads slung low, shoulders to match, something wonderful that had seemed so close, so real, so well-earned, had been lost. Forever. No way else to say it. It was devastating.
This may be true. But the upshot is a very not-so-terrible thing, and in the coming days, after the shock of a last-second defeat at the hands of a bitter rival begins to fade a bit, the words of Coach J.D. Salinas should serve as a proper postscript. Words for the girls to live by.
In the pregame portion, as folks piled happily into the arena and the teams eyed each other warily – trying very hard, as kids will do, NOT to be seen looking – Salinas had discussed the mindset heading into this fateful clash.
“No, I don’t think we’re nervous, really, or worried,” said the coach whose group has been league champion five times in his tenure. “What we stressed to the girls: they need to remember who they are, who we are. You don’t get as far as this team has gotten, these seniors three times to the third round, by accident. We wanted them to remember that the way they do things, the way they carry themselves, that exemplifies what we have been trying to establish as a program.”
Salinas also noted that though EHS will say goodbye to some awesome 12th-graders soon, many of the gals warming up he spoke would be back for more.
“So it’s not just this year, whether we win or lose,” he explained. “It’s not just about this game, tonight, it’s about our program, what we stand for, how we behave, how hard we work, things like that. Every year, every game.”
And after the heartbreaking loss, Salinas was good to his word on that matter.
“I am not disappointed … how could I be, with the effort that the girls just gave?” he said, hoarsely. “No, I am proud of them and proud of this program, the coaches, the school administrators, everyone; this was a great night and we came to do something special. Two teams played championship basketball here tonight and it came down to one possession … the last possession. It could have gone either way. The girls who will be back next year, they’ll remember this game, and they’ll want to get back here and have another shot at it.”