December 7, 2021
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
It was wild. It was crazy. Exhilarating, excruciating, it was too. Twists and turns, blood and guts, grit and hustle, amid uber-busy whistles to boot. Before a tremendously molten finish Tuesday night, it was all this, as the District 31-6A race kicked off with one of the most entertaining basketball bouts seen in town for some time.
North outlasted Econ at home, 59-57, avenging an earlier loss to the Lady Jags at the Weslaco Tournament, crawling back from a 14-point first half hole to do so. Econ, having raised the top tier trophy last weekend at the Wiseman in La Feria, came in on a 5-game hot streak and played like it off the bat, passing with precision and making shots with consistency. But the Lady Cougars, who raised their season record to 7-7 with the thrilling result, rebounded from a subpar showing in the initial stretches to outslug an old foe, with both teams working hard, exhibiting moments of brilliance, but each acting as if the goal were to miss free throws rather than make them (34 makes, 37 misses combined, yeesh).
In the end, after so many star turns by so many girls, it was little No. 10 for the Lady Coogs making a game-saving steal of a Jag outlet pass in the closing seconds to clinch the W. Junior Zoey Gaytan, who contributed 13 points on a night when North set a season best in offensive production, leapt in front to snag the ball, and afterward she spoke to what the play, and the game, meant to her. And to her team, which refused to stay down and used words of wisdom from first-year coach Marah Guzman to the best possible advantage.
“I had to get back on the inbounds because they had a girl back there,” said the diminutive Gaytan, who rocked in front of a roaring family contingent – including cousin Dani Vargas, the superb former Lady Coog point guard who is now a corporate attorney in Chicago – and channeled both Vargas’ and older sister Miranda’s determination the whole topsy turvy night. “I knew where the ball was going so I just stepped in and got it.
“We just kept on hustling, even though we started sort of slow,” continued Gaytan, whose sure feeds helped jazzy junior Jayli Rivera to a game-high 22 points alongside 12 from classmate Sam Aguilar; the latter Lady Coog was in the Zone for a back-and-forth fourth period with 10 clutch points. “Coach gave us some good pep talks; at the half, she asked us, ‘Do you want it? I mean, really want it?’ and we were like, ‘Yes, we do!’”
In order to show how much they coveted the win in the league opener, the Lady Coogs had to contend with a talented Econ group that is beginning to take flight, just as Coach Mari Campos has planned. Campos said that winning the title at the Wiseman was a big moment for her squad, suggesting that the girls were starting to realize their potential. With a junior-heavy roster, the Lady Jags had scored 60 or more points in two games so far in 2021-22 and during the five-game streak had allowed less than 30 ppg.
Econ started out like a house afire, with Dana Serna knocking in a three and lone senior Jasmine Loredo getting to the line with regularity, but soon the theme of the night became clear. After battling Jaylene Corona picked up two fouls in the first minutes of the game, the referee’s bleats started to mount in a physical and at times testy encounter. Coming in, one had to give the slight edge in depth to North, and it would pay off as one after another, the Orange kids saw mark after mark go into the scorebook next to their visiting names.
And don’t think the Lady Coogs didn’t notice.
“They were getting into foul trouble and so we just had to keep hustling,” said Gaytan afterward. “I started to see the drive more and took it, we figured, go at them and we could get them out. They thought I was a shooter but I just decided to start taking it to the basket more.”
And indeed, three Lady Jags eventually fouled out, including the all-important Loredo with a little less than three minutes to play. By then, North had amassed ample confidence while the Lady Jags were slightly rattled and looking toward the bench, where the line of reinforcements was dwindling.
Rivera, who scored 10 in the first half and 12 in the second, also knew what the deal was. Seemingly indefatigable, the tiny tough guard just kept on grinding, running into the teeth of the defense, and wearing Econ out.
“I never really got tired,” she smiled after the game. “Well, maybe a little, I might have looked tired there for a minute. But I knew if I just kept on going, I’d be OK, we could do it. Coach’s words really helped, she was always talking to us, and after we might have been nervous at the first, we got out of that and started playing.”
For sure, they did, coming from a 26-12 deficit in the second quarter to assume a 28-27 halftime lead as Gaytan canned a bomb and hit four free throws to lead the surge. Isabella Hetzel worked savagely on the boards during the run, while Briseidy Lerma was also physical and ready for combat; at times, her aggression kept North going, though she too was to be disqualified on fouls in time.
For Guzman, it was a fine way to start a league coaching career, leading a team that refused to give in, fought from behind, and executed down the stretch to cap a marvelous night of competition. A performance that perhaps signals that both these underdogs may be able to bottle this intensity – and scoring punch – to use for the long 31-6A slog ahead.
Simply a dynamite ball game, wish you’d been there. Oh … you were … that was you, behind the mask? Alright, bet! You can breathe now.
THE MADNESS BEGINS
Econ swept out of the gate with a rush, employing a series of looks on defense and coaxing North into some restless shot selection. At one point, the angular Serna was out front of the zone with willowy arms waving, and the Lady Coogs were somewhat flummoxed in trying to get the ball around or over her.
At the other end, after Corona went to the bench with fouls, sophomore Adia De los Reyes came on and immediately turned in a steal and a layup, the Lady Jags then getting into the press to further harry North. The lead grew to 16-5 until Rivera hit a three for the home side but then De los Reyes was prominent again, this time with a sharp bounce pass inside for junior Britzia Mancilla, who converted to close the first.
North also got some swell assists off the bench in this game, as Skye Ochoa, the tallest Lady Coog, came in to record a block early in the second; the first time these two met it had been fiesty Raven Dykes as the Rejection Machine.
Loredo for Econ, a staple of the program for four seasons, then barged to the offensive glass for free throws, and in her swan song year, Loredo has become a formidable rebounder, though she is still willing and able to handle the ball off and on. The team needs her strength and desire inside, and she has produced (9.8 rpg to go with more than 13 ppg). But Ochoa continued her strong play with a pass to Lerma, who was hacked and made one of two from the line.
Guzman’s girls were finally settling into the game. However, Econ now got a boost from junior Jazzlyn Espinoza, who put on an impressive stretch during which she made a free throw, then two more, and a layup after an offensive rebound. Everyone was going to get their chance for the Orange, as the fouls piled up, and this season, Campos has a few solid troops off the pine to assist the starters. Would they be enough?
The North rally began in earnest with a trey by Gaytan followed by a hoop from Rivera, who grabbed the board off her own miss, up and in, cutting the margin to 9. Senior Valerie Zepeda then drew a charge for the Lady Coogs, and Rivera scored at the other end with a floater off glass from the key, a shot which may be luck for some, but for her; she does it all the time.
Gaytan’s steal led to free throws by Rivera and then Hetzel smashed for an offensive carom, as the Lady Coogs were really churning. The once large Econ lead was just 1, when Aguilar swooped baseline to roll in a short chippie at 0:01, sending North in front. It had outscored Econ 18-3 to end the half, an amazing turnaround.
The second half was point-counterpoint all the way as the teams heated up, the refs kept calling it super close, and the fans were totally into it. Fun Tuesday.
At 6:15 Loredo took one coast to coast for a 31-30 Lady Jag advantage, and one. On the free throw, an oddity, as Loredo was the only kid who didn’t think “two shots.” Upon missing, the Orange senior walked into the lane to grab it, smiling slightly as no one else on either team budged. Sometimes, it just happens.
At this stage Serna picked up her third foul – Corona having already been similarly saddled – and Gaytan prowled the length for a drive to tie it at 34. The girls were just pounding each other now, showing that they were desperate for the W and at 2:39 Loredo was flagged for her fourth. Would North now assert itself once and for all?
Serna stopped the bleeding with a putback after Rivera’s drive for two and it was tied again at 38 when Mancilla made a nice high catch off a Serna lob to convert in traffic. Bianca Coronado of the Lady Jags grabbed the lead back with a rebound score and then two Corona charity tosses made it 42-38. To finish the frenetic third, Gaytan ripped away another steal and found a streaking Rivera for the deuce, 2-point margin heading into the fourth.
North’s defense was popping well, and Rivera’s steal led to a jumper from Aguilar but Econ surged to a 46-42 lead with a Mancilla free throw at 6:37. Aguilar’s pretty 3-ball got North back on top, 47-46 but Loredo drove to a pair of free throws and soon, Coronado’s trey made it 52-49, Econ, at the 3-minute mark. What a brawl this truly was.
Mancilla then fouled out, though, followed by Loredo at 2:43; could the Lady Jags hang on to post the triumph? They led 55-50 after a shot by Espinoza, but ENHS sophomore Kaylah Lozano was pure money with two free throws, followed by two more from Aguilar. Though they made just 18 of 35 from the line Tuesday, the Lady Coogs converted when it counted.
Still, Econ held serve to climb to a 57-55 lead on Corona’s hoop, leading to a fearless Rivera drive that retied the score again. At midcourt, Gaytan and Serna collided like bumper cars in search of a loose ball, with the arrow pointing North. With 0:40 left, the Lady Coogs set up and worked it to Rivera, who flipped in what would be the game-winner at 0:26, from the right baseline. Rivera then nearly came up with a pilfer on the inbounds, but Econ was able to call timeout and head to the huddle with scarcely more than 10 ticks remaining.
Guzman’s zone scheme worked wonders after the stoppage, as the Lady Coogs left one of the green Econ subs open, having corralled all other options, and the visitor missed a long jumper rather than try for another pass and a high-percentage look.
Gaytan tracked down the miss and after North inexplicably attempted a shot, though ahead by 2 (again, it happens, fog of war), Gaytan again was the hero with her final theft on the aforementioned final sequence. Her team will now try and keep it going Friday against Mission, versus a Lady Eagle unit it lost a close one to last weekend. Econ hosts EHS, after the Lady Bobcats erased Juarez-Lincoln in their opener Tuesday, 67-8. Vela started with an emphatic home rout of Pharr North. See the Lady Sabes at home against La Joya Friday.
Gaytan put the capper on a memorable night, reiterating that she always plays for her school, and her family. Then she added a postscript.
“I also play hard … because it makes me happy,” she mused, quietly but firmly.
Truer words were ne’er spake.