January 27, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
Everyone knows it, or used to. And if you forgot, just YouTube “Allen Iverson practice” for the assist. Players obviously love to play the games, but training and preparation between actual games, it isn’t as cool. It’s just “practice.” The clip is a perennial for hoops junkies that cracks them up every time.
This is just not a thing for the Jags right now, as they have been forced into an interesting position while the second half of the league season continues. Econ is having to make up a bunch of postponed games; for weeks they were basically, officially inactive, playing once in 19 days, due to COVID restrictions. All they did was practice, but at home, not school, as senior guard Rolando Moreno remarked. Working on sets, defenses, etc., as a collective was not a possibility in isolation. Could have been a problem, brain-wise, body-wise.
After the Jags outplayed EHS on the road Thursday, following a blowout win over Juarez-Lincoln Tuesday and a narrow defeat at the hands of North the next night, the visiting Orange showed few signs of fatigue. And that’s good, because Carlos Ramos’ squad now faced two more ball games in a row, and would not be finished with the exhausting makeup exams until Saturday’s contest with P-SJ-A. That will be five games in five days, and fair or not, that’s the way it is.
Practice? We tom ‘bout practice? None. Or games lately, either, until this week.
“When we were all sick, we had a chat group,” said the rugged guard Moreno after the team’s 58-47 win over the Bobcats ran its 31-6A record to 6-3. “But we played at our houses, tried to keep in shape, do our conditioning. It was tough but I think we are in shape and ready to make a run.”
The run is now at two wins, one defeat, after the Jags rallied from way behind to get to within 2 against the Cougars Wednesday before losing, 60-56. With Mission and P-SJ-A next – teams they whipped during the first round – they could be 8-3 after the long march, still three games behind first-place Vela (11-0) in 31-6A.
But this Thursday road test was huge for Ramos and his kids, because the Bobcats have been playing sound basketball lately, and had risen to 5-4 in the league before the encounter.
“We need this one, to create some separation between us and the teams that are in fourth right now,” said Ramos, who noted that besides EHS, Pharr North and La Joya, despite a down stretch for each, are still in the hunt. “It’s the same question as always about us: Which team is going to show up? When we are playing our best, real team ball, I still think we can compete and win against any team around.”
As for EHS, Coach Zeke Cuellar has done wonders with his club, causing Ramos to suggest that he thinks the promising ‘Cats are slightly ahead of schedule.
“They remind me of us a few years back, not a lot of seniors, but a team on the rise,” he said. “So we had better be ready to play tonight.”
Cuellar has been getting some notable balance in his scoring ranks. Deceptive junior Ian Garcia led with 21 against Lincoln, senior Derek Guerra laced in 24 against Pharr North Tuesday in a 3-point victory, and in a blowout of the Bears, EHS ran amok with 11 three-point makes, junior Jahi Fagan knocking in three of them.
But perhaps the other constant that’s led to three wins in the last four has been inspired action from senior Rolando Abrego. The football star has added toughness and athleticism to a rotation that isn’t short, isn’t tall, or exceptionally physical. And against Econ, the muscular QB was to enjoy some stellar moments.
The ‘Cats held their own quite well until late on the second period, letting the rope go a tad in falling to an 8-point deficit at the break. Rather than get tired, the Jags, halfway through the most trying stretch of the season, secured command of the game after that and coasted to an 11-point decision.
DIDN’T YOU GUYS PLAY YESTERDAY?
The first half was entertaining throughout, with Econ’s superstar Ray de Leon in the middle of the action, as one might expect. On his way to 23 points and nine rebounds, the senior was even more impressive on defense, making six steals. He got a finger on a pass after the opening tip and soared in for a layup.
But the ‘Cats were ready to roll, too, assuming a 6-5 lead when Garcia swooped in for a deuce between two Econ defenders. De Leon answered with a midair feed to Orly Martinez and then the former picked a Bobcat pocket for a one-on-none hoop. Crouching like a cobra, exploding with terrific timing, de Leon shows night in, night out that he not just a point machine; the kid can D up, too.
But, Abrego can do some tricks, and he now scored on a twisting stickback that looked like it had no chance … that is, until it sneaked over the rim with a sly grin. It was tit for tat in a sharp opening stanza as Fagan, whose sister Kiki is a key cog of the girls’ hardwood outfit, drove the lane and dished off to Joaquin Soto, giving Cuellar’s crew a 12-11 lead.
The Bobcats were excellent in the halfcourt offense during the nascent stages, cutting to the goal – often around screens from Abrego – and generally putting their pre-game walk-through and shootaround tactics to quality use. They had practiced.
Late in the period, EHS junior Gabriel Negrete sank an 8-footer from the left baseline good for a 15-14 advantage but two free throws from de Leon put the East Side to the strong side at the end of one, Garcia almost sinking a floating J off the board at the horn. De Leon had put in 11 of his team’s 15 to that point, Guerra having canned 4 of 4 from the free throw line for the opposite quintet.
The nearly impossible schedule has made things even more dicey for the depth-challenged Jags, who play six kids most nights, occasionally seven. But as Moreno noted, and teammate M.J. Barrientos confirmed, the kids are cool with it. They love the games, even if they are coming rapid fire right fire, with no recovery time. Hey, when you’re 17, you can run all night. If you’re a Jag right now, you gotta.
One of the Econ subs, junior Sebastian Lopez, had come on to make a smart defensive play near the end of the first, and now he started the second with a three-ball. But Soto answered with a slick cut to the goal, receiving a pass from sophomore Ryan Rivera en route to the score. Then Guerra was the guy slicing through the D, Abrego hitting him with a perfect pass (imagine) to facilitate a chippie. Cuellar had to be happy with the execution, and same for assistants Stevie Guerrero and Aaron “A.O.” Olvera, two of the greatest program legends; they used to surgically dismantle opposing D’s back in the Fab Four day, after all.
So EHS was slugging it out, staying with Econ, but Martinez broke free to fly to the rim and register a pretty basket, stretching the lead to 5. The Bobcats who, as Ramos noted, are not the most seasoned club in the league (Vela and Econ might be tops in that category), nonetheless battled back, as after de Leon hammered an EHS shot 20 feet off the court (and to an ECISD policeman standing by the door), Guerra came back with a three-pointer.
As one of the only seniors of note, the lanky Guerra has come on strong lately, fulfilling the potential his coach always knew he possessed. Fine time for it, too, as his overall performance has helped the Bobcats into the playoff hunt, though many before the season were doubting that it could be done.
Four minutes left in the half, Jags up, 23-21. But from there, de Leon stormed the baseline with grace and power, Barrientos hit two free throws and converted a power move inside, and the Orange climbed into a 31-23 advantage by the horn.
TIRED? WHO’S TIRED?
Fagan got the ‘Cats off to an auspicious debut in the third with a bomb, but de Leon shimmied back upcourt and did the same. Then Fagan contributed a leaping block, only to have de Leon nail a pullup J for a 36-28 lead. It wasn’t over for the home side yet, though, as Guerra (18 points) snaked to the goal twice to score.
De Leon made a stupendous defensive recovery now, motoring in to swat an EHS breakaway lay off the board, and halfway to midcourt. Every time, that guy will give you highlight reel material, what a crowd-pleasing ballplayer.
One wonders what the versatile Abrego might have accomplished had he doubled up with hoops and football each year. He can play, though, showing it by dashing to the goal for a fancy double-clutch drive, 7-point Jag edge. Dalys Hernandez, the workin’ man, erased that 2 with a putback on the offensive glass, and at that stage, Econ forged ahead.
It was 52-38 by the end of three, Moreno putting in five points in the quarter, Martinez five as well. Martinez made a super catch in traffic, scoring on the play with an and-one and this juncture of the night indicates that when all the Jags are scoring, they’re a better unit, one more likely to pinch the Dub. De Leon had five in the quarter but none in the fourth; Barrientos, too strong for the Bobcats on his romps to the rack, ended with 14 points.
Rivera of EHS, a real sharpshooter when he’s on, lofted in a magnificent 3 from way, way out, but in an illustrative moment, it came just after the quarter had ended. Waved off. EHS was out of gas, and luck, not Econ.
The less said about the choppy and dismal fourth period, the better, as six minutes in, the teams had combined for all of six points. The die was cast by then, anyway, as Econ improved to 17-12 overall. EHS, now 5-5 and 14-14, is still right where it needs to be, with a shot at a playoff spot.
The North club that nipped the Jags midweek is now a glittering 8-2 in 31-6A, copping its 20th victory of the campaign in preparation for Saturday’s home bout against a decidedly average Mission quintet. Unbeaten Vela, now 11-0 and 25-6, should have zero trouble in humbling winless Lincoln Friday, leading to what shapes up to be a sweet night of ball, Feb. 1 when Econ tangles with the SaberCats at Vela.
At least that is the schedule for now and really, bro … who knows anymore. If it wasn’t for the hard work and diligence of city AD Roy Garza, who has been working overtime with his trusted crew these days to try and sort out the postpone/resume madness, it would be utter chaos. Instead of moderate, manageable chaos.
Still, whenever the district and league say play, though, the Jags will be there. Who needs “practice” anyway, lol … we got game(s)!