January 8, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Given a chance to pack it in, down 9 on the road against a dogged foe, struggling to make shots in an ice cold, tomblike gym, the Lady Bobcats had a choice. They could write this one off and wait for the bus, or they could renew the fight with more intensity and determination.
To their credit, the girls in Red and Blue shrugged off all doubt, got back down to business, and started to play with the sort of desire that has made the EHS program among the best in the Valley for decades. Defense was the key as Coach J.D. Salinas’ club fought back into the game against P-SJ-A, in a battle that saw teams with the exact same specs (6-1 in District 31-6A, 21-7 overall) claw at each other for 32 riveting if imperfect minutes.
The Lady Bears, with senior dominator Kaylah Hernandez on her way to 28 points and 14 rebounds, led most of the way until the late third, when the Lady Bobcat press began to tire them out. Lucero Jimenez knocked in a three-pointer off a Kiki Fagan feed to give the visitor its first lead since 5-4, and the lead zigzagged back and forth from there. EHS was up 5 in the fourth before Hernandez led her group back, and the war went to overtime. Once there, there were only two baskets, a score from the burly Hernandez but then a magical moment for Salinas’ gang.
After a three-point miss inside the final half-minute, senior Larissa Martinez grabbed one of the biggest offensive rebounds of her life and fed back out to Fagan. Given a second chance at the hero’s laurels, the athletic sophomore nailed the trifecta this time, with eight seconds left. Fagan then smartly denied an inbounds pass to the main Lady Bear guard, and a last-ditch three from Hernandez fell short.
From the depths of despair, the throes of self-doubt, the Lady ‘Cats had rallied to pull off a fantastic win, keeping them just one game back of district leader Vela, which is 8-0. After a night of misfires from the outside and the uphill task of trying to contain the punishing Hernandez, EHS had proven that anyone who is counting them out of the title race had better think again.
Before the game, Salinas had discussed the state of his ball club, saying that though the Lady ‘Cats had been getting good shots, they hadn’t been making enough of them. Averaging seven makes from downtown is fine, a figure among the best in the Valley, but the team shoots less than 30 percent from beyond the arc, or with less accuracy than in years past.
“But when we do start making them, we are going to be dangerous,” Salinas said, noting that recent narrow victories over La Joya and Pharr North had not worried him unduly. “That’s who we are, a shooter’s gonna shoot, and we just need to shoot with a little more confidence, a chip on our shoulder.”
Salinas has to remind himself sometimes that though he has a bevy of outstanding sophomores who were part of the three-deep playoff run last season, their roles are somewhat different this time around.
“They are all learning what it’s like to have the pressure, having the ball in their hands in the big games,” he explained. “We’ve started to see them progress at this, and the other girls, they are in different roles, too. We’re 28 games in and it’s time for us to step up the learning curve, find the ‘It’ factor that we need to come through in the clutch.”
Still stuck slightly in the Lady ‘Cat craw is the 21-point whipping Dec. 17 at the hands of Vela, the Valley’s No. 1 outfit – EHS came in sixth, P-SJ-A eighth in the latest poll – but the coaches are trying to use it as a teaching moment.
“Yeah, no doubt it hurt, right in here,” Salinas said, jabbing a fist into his chest. “We think we could have done better; a Rivalry Game is a chance to show what you’re about and we didn’t play as well as we can. It humbled us a little bit, which is good, every team needs that every now and then. Every time you play in a big game, you learn more about how to handle it and perform to your best … and tonight is another chance for us to do that.”
It’s tough to get anywhere in the Valley these days, have you noticed? Good luck going to La Joya if you should be so inclined, and even getting to the Tri Cities by the normal route has turned into a stop-and-go mess reminding one more of bustling and snarled Austin than our pleasant (formerly) small-town home. If one had taken Cage to get to Ridge, then turned left to veer onward to the home of the Osos, he or she might have glimpsed the lovely remnants of the City of Pharr’s fabulous holiday light decorations. Traveling down Veterans would not have provided such an aesthetically fruitful venture, but it sure would have saved time (note to idiot self).
At any rate, the gym at P-SJ-A was a mausoleum, absolutely freezing and so quiet before the opening tip that it could have been a scrimmage, a tournament game starting at 8 a.m. on a Saturday, or even a practice session. All one heard was the steady bounce-bounce of the layup line, an occasional sneaker squeak, and were the girls blowing steam out of their mouths? Must have been a hallucination.
For a game that held so much importance to the race, it was odd to see such a wimpy crowd on hand; in the early stages a child’s smartphone playing a video game was louder than the intermittent murmurs from the watchers of the Other Game. Bizarre.
At initial blush, this one seemed to be an easier muster than it could have been, because without mighty mite Heaven Estrada (out for the year with an injury, life is cruel sometimes, that little kid is a player), the Lady Bears have been struggling. But luckily for the home side, senior Lesly Tinoco has picked up some slack for her fallen comrade; she and Hernandez were ready for the Friday fight, and led P-SJ-A to an 18-13 lead after a quarter. To prove they were sharper than the opponent in the opening chapter, the Lady Bears held the ball for the last 50 seconds until producing a solid pass for an open three by soph Jackie Molina.
EHS had begun with fire but again was having trouble knocking down shots. Fagan hit her first three to start off and Jimenez canned one as well, with Emily Carranco adding two hoops, though she would endure a tough evening against the rampaging Hernandez.
And it was the goggled Hernandez, who always surprises with her quickness and skills, who hit a shot to give the Lady Bears a 9-point advantage early in the second period. It was at about this time against Vela that the Lady ‘Cats had started to fall away, but this time, they had to avoid the collapse, and play their game.
As stated, it was defense that did the trick, as EHS went from a 2-3 zone into man, with Martinez and Fagan forcing a steal and getting off to the races. After a few minutes of EHS trapping and hustling, the home unit started to show some wear. Neither team went to the bench often in this slugfest; fatigue would be a definite factor. At 4:03, Carranco rushed to the basket for a hoop to narrow the gap to 5 and then Fagan stole one and fed Carranco for another inside finish. Those two are the scoring leaders for the club this season, combining for 25 points and 12 rebounds a night; they’ve held up well under the burden and strain of having to replace graduated stars Daysha Tijerina and A’nnika Saenz, with ample assistance from their cool classmate, Maddy Martinez.
The Lady Bears ended the half up 6 at 28-22, but ominously, Hernandez had been the only whiteclad to score in the period. Would she run out of gas? Does she ever?
REVVING IT UP
Fagan was all over the place as the third began, and slowly the atmosphere picked up; maybe the fans realized that the only way to stay warm in the frigid ice box was to generate some heat. With her teammates on the bench starting to make a racket, Fagan forced a five-second call when the Lady Bear guard could not work around the speedy Lady ‘Cat. Carranco got out on the break soon after, hitting M. Martinez (nine points, eight boards, canny stewardship from the point) and then came a star turn from a steady senior.
Genesis Hall has had her moments of excellence in 2021-22, such as an 18-point gem in a win against Weslaco back in November. Now she fired a pass to M. Mart, whose three at 3:30 of the third brought the Lady ‘Cats to within 1. L. Mart (eight boards) got the possession back by fighting fiercely to a tie-up, her specialty, and then it was Jimenez – like Hall a former role player who has elevated her game – with a bomb off a Fagan assist. Now it was 34-32, EHS, its first lead in forever, with the bench going wild. Now it seemed like a big game!
At the end of the third, M. Mart showed her IQ by tipping a rebound she couldn’t quite reach to a teammate, and seconds later, Hall spotted up in the left corner for a three-ball via Fagan’s feed, giving the visitor a 37-34 lean with eight minutes left.
The electricity was palpable as EHS kept grinding, the physical Jimenez getting to a loose ball first; Carranco, to end with 14 points eventually, scored at the other end for a 5-point lead. But the Lady Bears were not going away. Despite the absence of Estrada, this prideful bunch was going to slug away for all it was worth. Hernandez and Tinoco provided the punch in the fourth as P-SJ-A worked back into it. But EHS kept hustling for offensive boards, getting second shots, and refusing to settle for one and done. They shot less than 30 percent from the floor overall, 7 of 32 on threes, but they kept on firing, as Salinas suggested they would.
Carranco was rejected inside by hostile Hernandez, but EHS’ agile post never blinked; she just kept on playing, finding a way. She scored twice in a hard-edged fourth and Hall canned another bomb to make it 44-42, Lady ‘Cats; this after Hernandez had converted a three-point play inside. Back and forth they went, just like two fine teams who want to stay in the hunt for the trophy.
Tinoco went in for 2 with a foul and somehow the clock motored right along after the whistle, three ticks too many at least. She missed the charity toss, game still tied, and starting at 40 seconds, EHS ran down and set up, but now the clock was, ironically, not rolling. Ten ticks too few. Wow. Really?
Anyway, the last half minute, with EHS running its motion set, milking the clock down to under 10 seconds. Timeout. Pharr came up with another block inside and Hernandez unleashed a mammoth 50-foot softball heave from center field at the buzzer … and it came closer than anyone thought it might. But overtime.
EHS hung back in the zone to start the extra session, daring the Osos to shoot from the perimeter, which they did not want to do. L. Mart and Carranco wrested possession away at last but the offense turned it over. Carranco made a great steal but the Lady ‘Cats missed a shot; however that crafty Hall girl surged to an offensive rebound, embodying the story of the night: desire, and these gals had it when they needed it.
The finale was messy though, as each team was mistake-plagued in OT, weary and wary as well. Hernandez (of course) broke the spell of lethargy at 1:05 and the drama heated up to the boil. Down 2, EHS worked it until a timeout at 0:33, and another at 0:24, Salinas and Co. searching for the perfect strategy at the optimum time. In the huddle the girls studied the whiteboard intently, nodding while wiping what sweat there was to be had in such arctic climes.
Fagan, who remember had canned the game’s first trey but not scored since, let one fly and on the long carom, program vet L. Mart simply wanted it more. She got it and rifled a sweet look back to Fagan. Ka-BAM!!! bottom of the net, 47-46 EHS and one could just see the growth happening, sense the collective advance up the learning curve. In a huge moment, the Lady ‘Cats had not failed, they had succeeded, with hustle and grit, with belief in the program pedigree. And their coach could not have been happier/more relieved.
“We needed a chance to feel good about ourselves, after losing to Vela,” he admitted afterward. “We turned up the press, got some turnovers and limited their good shots. Remember, we have several sophomores and playing against some grown women out there, like Kaylah. She’s so good! I wanted us to fight back when we got behind, to bring it, and they were able to do that.”
Salinas lauded Fagan on the final sequences and spoke of other takeaways.
“Not just the shot she hit, but her defense on the inbounds, that was key,” he exclaimed. “Kiki did just what we asked her to do, she slipped inside and denied the ball, and that forced them to take a three at the end. This was big for us, we still have the goal, to be at the top. Right now, we’re a game back but in range. It’s motivation for us, and tonight we got a big win against a tough opponent, on the road. We were able to hang around until we got going, and the main thing is, we’re learning.
“Every time you play in one of these games, face the pressure, it makes you better. The truth is, we’ve been in this situation before, a few years back with Weslaco; we lost to them during the first round of district two years in a row, but we came back to make long runs in the playoffs. Tonight our girls showed what they are about. Lucy [Jimenez] was diving around, hustling like Ron Artest or Dennis Rodman. Genesis made some huge plays for us, she didn’t get down after a turnover, she just came back and brought it, did it, the next time. We want to be like a family, and when we get challenged, we’re gonna get up and fight back and play harder. That’s what has made us one of the best programs in the Valley, for years.”