January 19, 2022

By Greg Selber

Click here for select game photos

One could focus on the movement, of ball and man, and be correct. One could also fixate on the shooting touch, which produced six treys and an 18-of-21 showing at the free throw line. All to the good. But along with these outstanding facets of the SaberCat machine at home Tuesday, one must also note the pounding rebounding job and the ferocious pressing and trapping defensive performance Vela turned in to stay undefeated in District 31-6A.

Truly, Coach Lucio Rodriguez’ quintet fashioned perhaps its best effort of the slate so far, dominating North by the lopsided count of 80-49 to rise to 9-0 in league, 23-6 overall. North, which came in having sat last week out due to COVID restrictions on opponents, seemed to be fresh and ready to avenge its district-opening loss to the Sabes. But just like last time, when Vela charged ahead in the second period Dec. 14 en route to an easy win, the Blue and Black stomped the Coogs 19-4 in the second, eventually dropping the visitor to 5-2, 17-9.

By halftime it was 42-19, game over, the subs getting ample playing time for a team that is simply firing away on all cylinders right now. Alec Mancillas led the way with a season-best 21 points, while fellow senior Jacob Rodriguez pitched in 13 points and classmate Rolando Rodriguez was a terror on the glass with seven boards, also putting in eight points in the rout.

From the opening tip, the Sabes ran and cut, passed and passed again, dicing the Coogs’ 2-3 zone to bits. When they missed a shot, they climbed the glass with relentless force, and when they made buckets, they pressed hard, fullcourt, not allowing North to take it easy getting into its sets. This was a repeat performance from the first matchup, when the stifling defense was just too much for the Coogs, leading to a 23-point loss. The teams also faced off in a tournament back in November, Vela winning by 1, and North coach Rudy Garcia was hoping that this first try of three, where his club was feisty on D, withstood pressure, and made some shots, would repeat itself Tuesday.

However, outside of some soft shooting from junior post Eddie Gonzalez (eight points in the first half) and a spirted stretch of work from junior Jorge Santa Maria (led with 12, hustled all night), the Coogs found themselves hurried and harried by the Vela stoppers. Their fine guard tandem of Cristian Faz and Anthony Thomas was held to a combined 13 points as North just could not weather the blast of excellence Vela threw down.

It was decisive decimation in every phase of the game, and the last two quarters saw the Sabe students get to chant and cheer for the second-teamers, and go even more crazy when the end of the bench emptied down the stretch.

Having run off five district victories in a row since the loss to Vela, the Coogs came in fired up after offensive outbursts of 82 points against P-SJ-A and 86 versus Juarez-Lincoln. Those point jamborees were two weeks in the rearview though, as last week’s action against Econ and Mission did not come off amid the rise in COVID cases that has roiled the schedule in two spring sports, soccer as well as hoops. If anything, after a week of practice but not games, North was a bit rusty, and by the time the guys knew what was happening, it had happened.


       It started well enough as Faz drove the lane and no-looked to Santa Maria and Thomas then drove for a hoop. But Vela was already into the air on the offensive glass, with Rolando Rodriguez at the fore; when Mancillas scored on the break a sequence after R. Rod connected off the inbounds, it was 11-6 five minutes in.

Senior Tony Requenez, back in the saddle now after an illness, was in command out front with fellow veteran Aidan Avelar. The former executed a neat spin move on a drive to find a spotted-up Mancillas for a trifecta, and the Sabes were off to the races.

Using an extra pass on almost every possession, Vela whittled the North defense down, with the rugged yet skilled Requena smacking a perfect bounce pass down to a teammate for two. At the two-minute mark of the first it was 20-10 after J. Rod canned a bomb, but North got up off the mat for a Gonzalez 10-footer and a driving two from soph Joseph Cruz. Thomas nailed a stepback 3 and for minute, it looked like a barnburner ahead.

But from 21-15 late in the first, it was all home side as seven different kids hit the scorebook in the second, the intimidating Gonzalez exiting with two fouls. At the end of the first period the Coogs betrayed their jitters by attacking the basket with just four players on the court; somehow senior Marcos Leal beat the odds to get free throws.

With Requena and then Matthew Cavazos all over Faz, not letting him get loose for his potent drives, the offensive options dwindled for North.

Meanwhile, J. Rod was flying to the basket, using his quickness and size to score easily at the rim. Then it was Requena, combining strength and burst to get into the clear around the goal. With Gonzalez sitting, the Coogs were awful small out there.

As the Vela lead widened to 15, lanky Jose Balderas came on and provided some valuable plays, making a reverse layup against Gonzalez once the latter had re-entered, later drawing foul No. 3 on the North big man. He also had a bounce pass assist inside and scored off a Requena assist. Good minutes, boi.

By the time Avelar coasted downcourt to sink a pullup J at 0:16, it was history, 42-19.

Details from the rest of the night: Santa Maria was a workhorse after the half, scoring 10 of his 12 with relentless forays to the hole, while junior guard Eli Armenta converted five of six from the stripe for North.

Of the Vela subs, Freddy Salinas had some highlights, including a steal, a clever assist, and a funky snatch of a rebound, one-handed way up high. The night was encapsulated by the nonstarters near the end, when Eric Trigo made a slick sidearm feed to Cavazos, who spun in the lane and as he did, found Jayden Rodriguez open for a three from the left corner. Vela was just that good Tuesday, even their bench cats were jamming like acrobats and killers. Impressive!

The statement win at home over North comes after an overtime road result against La Joya last week in which Avelar tossed in a career-high 30. To show how well the Sabes are playing right now, the curly senior was steady Tuesday but not busy, stat-wise, as other kids (12 in all scored) got their chance to get with the program. In a nine-game run, Vela has not really been seriously challenged, and if it keeps the all-purpose quality going, will win the district in a walk. There is a long way to go, and anything can happen, but the Sabes have to be feeling pretty good about their effort and results so far.

North is still quite in the swing of the race at 5-2, and now when the games come stacked – regular and makeup – the Coogs are going to have to get back on it and stay there. The matchup against Vela just appears to be one that doesn’t work in their favor, athletically. And lately Rodriguez has been getting great mileage out of his depth, which has always been a program strong suit. Conversely, Coog junior Darian Garza hit a three Tuesday, marking the third game in a row he has done so; he and Leal will get their chance to step in and contribute, along with Armenta, but with forward Noni Rios having missed much of the league season, the Coogs are a bit thin right now. Power forward Javi Cervantes had some strong sequences.

Right now, Econ and La Joya have four wins each, and Pharr North – on a recent roll – has five. EHS, which is in action (tentatively) Thursday against the Jags and Friday versus Vela, faces a tough test to try and stay alive, having fashioning a 4-3 record coming into the week. With Vela steaming ahead of the pack, it might end up being a real slugfest for spots 2-3-4.

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