February 1, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
It will go down as one of the most exciting games in the history of basketball in this town, that much is obvious.
Its signature moments were many as the Jags fought their way through massive adversity to hand the SaberCats their first 31-6A loss after 12 successive victories. There was the way that Econ (9-3 with the amazing 72-70 overtime win) battled onward even with two starters (yes, him, too) disqualified on fouls, getting absolutely vital contributions from dudes that almost no one has ever seen on the court. There was a senior leader, M.J. Barrientos, taking the game over down the stretch with steals, facilitation for others, and key free throws with ice water in his veins.
But none of these tremendous exploits would have mattered as much had it not been for … Dalys Hernandez.
With the Jags trailing 62-59 and time running out in the fourth period, the least likely outside threat ended up being the last resort. After having connected on all of five three-pointers all season, the workmanlike senior swingman found himself in the spotlight, in the left corner. Nearly falling out of bounds as he shot, Hernandez, a fine rebounder and defender content to do the dirty work while some of the other Jags hog the scoring duties, blazed his mark into school history.
Hoisting a desperation off-kilter shot so high that it seemed to graze the ceiling of the Vela gym, Hernandez became a legend in his own time as after an eternity passed – hundreds of fans with hearts in their throats, hands thrust into the air in anticipation – the message came to earth, swishing through the net and sending the game into the extra session.
Incredible. But not unprecedented, we will recall.
It’s on a par with Rolando Rocha’s otherworldly 55-foot EHS prayer to beat the Cougars some years back. And it brought back memories of Vela freshman Ryan Garza’s arching bomb at the buzzer to sink the Sharyland Rattlers, on the road, after three overtime sessions, some eight years ago.
It was special and it was unlikely, and it kept the fighting Jags alive in a game they needed badly, to obtain some distance between themselves and the other competitors well behind probable titlist Vela in this year’s run for the roses.
It was the type of shot you practice for fun, every now and then, usually by yourself. Some of us even double as the broadcaster on the radio, describing the action while we make it.
“And here’s Elvin Hayes, Bullets’ last chance, DOWN 1, on the baseline, in traffic. THE CLOCK IS TICKING, title on the line… he can’t get this one OFF, can he? … but he does!!! … and he … it … he SCCCOOOOORRRRES!!!”
Coach Carlos Ramos went through the gamut of emotions Tuesday night, at Vela. He saw his Jags compete and use their athleticism, despite the absence of one starter to injury and with a key sub on the shelf as well.
Econ took command of the game in the third period with a barrage of five treys, two from senior Ray de Leon, who was to lead all scorers with 25 points.
When the SaberCats climbed back into the driver’s seat in the fourth thanks to great shooting from senior Alec Mancillas (led Vela with 20 points), there was a time there when the Jags could have wilted.
They didn’t, and even when de Leon and fellow senior Rollie Moreno fouled out, leaving the team with zero manpower on the bench, Ramos’ soldiers fought on.
“We had to depend on some kids who don’t play that much in pressure situations,” he explained. “But you know what, those kids got their shot and they came on and, somehow, we didn’t skip a beat. I am so proud of all those guys, cannot say enough about them.”
And Hernandez, the unlikely gunner from downtown?
“It’s not that he cannot shoot, he just doesn’t take many threes,” the coach said. “He had taken a couple earlier in the game and we kind of got on him a little, because it wasn’t the time for that. When he got the ball, I was like, alright, oh well, we fought them, hard, and we never gave up … and the next thing you know, it’s going in! I mean, it didn’t hit anything; at first I thought, wait, did it go in? The net didn’t even move! So glad for him to get his chance to shine, Dalys saved the game for us.”
Vela came in on the hottest of streaks, 12-0 in district and not having lost in more than six weeks, dating back to mid-December. And the Sabes, having beaten the Jags in round one on the back of a fine defensive effort keyed by senior Jacob Rodriguez, figured that they would just keep on keepin’ on, following the same formula that has made Coach Lucio Rodriguez’ club the class of the league, close to tops in the Valley this season.
With Jacob Rodriguez hopping to six quick points and fellow senior Rolando Rodriguez turning in another of his patented quick starts, Vela led 14-11 after one quarter. R. Rodriguez, a burly and agile inside guy, bounded to a couple of hoops to start the night, one off a pass from senior Aidan Avelar and the other courtesy of a feed from teammate Tony Requena.
If anything has distinguished the league leaders most in 2021-22, it is the crisp mechanism of the offense, its picks, backdoor cuts, and alert deliveries. And the thing is, all five kids – the fifth being senior Mancillas – can pass the basketball and do so with pleasure.
De leon cranked in seven for the period, one three, while junior Sebastian Lopez, destined to make some enormous plays down the road, found the basket along with Moreno.
The catch was this: J. Rod had been whistled for a pair of fouls in the first four minutes, and might this hinder his job of chasing de Leon around, irritating him and making him work for shots? That had worked like a charm in the first match, won by Vela, 70-56 back on New Year’s Eve.
R. Rod elevated his way over a defender to a monster rebound near the end of the quarter and Vela seemed, slight foul trouble notwithstanding, to be in sound shape.
J. Rod slipped in a cool little jump hook early in the second and it was 18-13, Sabes, the Jags starting to look a tad gassed. They didn’t have much depth, while Vela, with a relatively full bench, stayed with the starters almost throughout, subbing in Eric Trigo at times; he, like Lopez of Econ, was to figure prominently in this stem-winder of a hardwood story.
The Jags got a second wind quickly though, and as Ramos has always said, his team is athletic and scary when it’s feeling/playing right. If not, it gets um, interesting for him and the staff. Anyway, Econ was passing as well as Vela, showed a rare fullcourt pressure a few times, and was trapping at midcourt to try and disrupt the smooth Vela flow.
“We know that collectively, they can all handle the ball, they’re that good,” Ramos said. “We pressed a little, even though we don’t have the numbers to do that, thinking that maybe if we got in their face, they would start to be hesitant, lose some confidence.”
From that 5-point deficit, Econ rallied as Moreno’s steal and free throws from Hernandez helped the effort. De leon sank a J for the lead at 19-18, but then Vela performed a champion’s finish to the half, with Requena (17 for the night) dominating for six straight and a 24-23 advantage.
The teams in a nutshell this season: Econ led 23-20 but let it slip, failing to use the last possession to get a decent shot off. Vela took off with the ball and ended with Requena at the line, making two free tosses at 0:00 (the Sabes were 13 for 13 Tuesday, or 100 percent for the non-math majors) while everyone else went to the lockers. Execution in the clutch, taking the chances when they arise. Vela has been the best at that this season; like the Bobcats used to do, the Sabes almost always win the end of the period, with smart, concentrated action at the right speed. They follow the plan. They run their sets. Many teams don’t.
Barrientos had picked up three fouls in the half and J. Rod was soon to get his third, as the second half started. The music was yeetsville Tuesday, whoever jammed in the old school Snoop, Dre, Tupac (ka-bam: “California Love,” extended version, bumpin’) needs a bonus. Super good vibe.
R. Rod showed he can see the floor and the man, sending a great pass to a cutting Requena. Then de Leon scored, as he does very often, followed by a hoop from the gutty Moreno; Mancillas, on his way to a nine-point quarter on three missiles from deep, connected, and it was on.
But Econ gained the upper hand on a bomb from de Leon and then a nasty stepback 3 from Barrientos (13 points). That made it 36-29, biggest bulge for the East Side, until Mancillas was cool with another 3, in his standup style, releasing the ball way above his head. Of course, then it was Lopez of the Jags, firing in a 3-ball, and this kid has zero fear out there; he comes to hoop as if it’s the park … like, it’s whatever, run it back.
Back and forth action in a game between serious rivals who have played some crazy ones in the past. Remember the time when an inbounds pass off the ceiiling at Jags turned the tide? Or the Trophy Game in 2019 when Econ tied the Sabes for the title, winning right at the season’s wire? This season belongs to the Sabes, but the Jags were plenty excited to see if they could notch the upset.
With three minutes left in the third, Jags up 7, de Leon was hit with a foul and tech, and as an extremely emotional and intense player, a dude who wants to win mega-bad, this tends to happen to the talented scoring star. But things started to point southward for the Orange.
And Vela, as all winners must do, sensed the mojo tilt, and came on at full steam.
Despite J. Rod’s foul issues, the Sabes mounted the comeback as Requena marshaled key boards, Avelar went strong to the goal after a sweet fake, and Mancillas rang the ball yet again.
Down just 2, the Sabes could not locate a loose ball in their own quadrant, but Hernandez could, racing in to snare the ball and dish to an open Moreno in the left corner; his three-pointer made it 44-39 until J. Rod clipped the lead to 3 at the end.
At this stage, Trigo came in and on, slamming in a bomb at 7:17 of the fourth for the lead, directly after Requena had converted a man’s march to the goal. He is strong, and quick and watch him in warmups: Tony got spins.
Requena’s three then made it 49-46, Vela, the first home lead since early third, but Lopez calmly knocked in a triple (Econ hit eight for the night, Vela seven), and it was chaos in the gym, the fun kind.
Hernandez converted free throws to put his club up 2 at 53-52 but Mancillas scored off a Trigo feed: both teams were playing excellent basketball right now, gratifying to watch it. Trigo then put the Sabes ahead 57-53 with two free throws, R. Rod came up with a mammoth blocked shot, and Moreno of the Orange committed his fifth foul. Three minutes left, tea leaves pointing to the Blue and Black.
When de Leon made two free throws, Econ trailed 57-55, and back in came J. Rod, who had been sitting down with four debits. But the man was Trigo, who made an audacious long one for tres, only to have Barrientos come back down and spin in the lane for a floater. Hernandez, who knows no gear other than full, slipped in for a tip and it was 60-59 Vela, outrageous slugfest continuing. Trigo then caught a pass against the Econ press – which as Ramos had hoped was bothering the home side – and in the air, whipped a feed into the frontcourt. Trigo was feeling it Tuesday.
With a 1-point lead, the Sabes pulled it outside inside the final minute, passing up a couple of good looks in the lane. Then Lopez stole one for the Jags, J. Rod fouled out, and oh boy, here we go.
Near the 0:25 mark the Jags appeared to gasp their last, missing a one-and-one, and with 0:12 left, Trigo was chillin’ with two charity tosses, 62-59 Sabes.
Inside the final seconds, Vela chose not to foul, and the Jags raced into the frontcourt, whereupon after a messy, confusing scrum out front, Hernandez came good on the shot that will always define him. A potent parabola of a prayer that precipitated proper pandemonium in the Jaguar people, stone silence from the stunned Sabes.
ALL NIGHT, BABY
Now, for the OT. Would Ramos’ wounded warriors be able to find one more magic bullet with which to put the unbeatens on their backs once and for all? Given all the facts so far, it still just seemed kinda unlikely, ngl.
It got even more unlikely when de Leon fouled out early in the OT. Still, hope. Hernandez, by now levitating on another frequency altogether, stepped in to draw a charge and Barrientos went to work. He put the Jags up 66-62 with a superb move in the lane, and Ramos later said that this game was a crowning moment for M.J.
“He did it, man, he really did it, he took over the game late,” Ramos enthused. “He split the trap, the double team, he got other kids involved, created shots, made free throws. This is what M.J. is capable of and I am proud of him for doing such a good job tonight, when we were down, with fouls and everything else.”
Even when Barrientos missed a free throw in OT, that fabulous pest Hernandez sneaky snaked in to get the board. That’s why Econ won, they craved it more, battled through the fatigue and obstacles, and just refused to accept defeat.
With two minutes left, M.J. again earned free throws, which he sank, and it was 68-62. Requena barged inside for a hoop and R. Rod (J. Rod having fouled out) made a steal, again showing that he may be big, but he ain’t slow.
But Vela began to miss its shots, attempts it had made earlier in the night. Two guys who did not miss for the Jags? Rigo Gonzalez and Pedro Elizondo. Seldom seen in 2021-22, each was into the action now, with de Leon and Moreno disqualified, and each made a key basket down the stretch to clinch the upset. Elizondo slipped behind the defense for a cherry pickin’ chippie to push it to 70-64, and despite a late hoop and then free throws by Mancillas, Barrientos spliced the double team on the inbounds, with his team up 2, and with eight seconds to go, stepped to the line. Bang, bang, game over, though Vela managed a consolation deuce just before the horn.
In the grand scheme of things, the juggernaut will roll on for Coach Rodriguez; now 12-1, the Sabes have four contests left and a solid lead, with North (10-2) and the Jags (9-3) battling for spots two and three (they play each other Feb. 11 at North). Vela got a proper wakeup call, and as the fans were suggesting on the way out after an exhausting night, better now than later. It would have been nice to run through the league unbeaten, as the Lady SaberCats – they cut the nets after the boys’ game, all happy – are doing, but bottom line, salt away the first seed, get ready for the playoffs, and try to embark on another of the program’s trademark runs into the postseason bracket.
For the Jags, who have endured a tumultuous season for a multitude of reasons, this W meant gobs. Four out of five victories now, a chance for second. Pride. All of it.
“I mean, they’re the potential district champs, we know that,” said Barrientos after the upset. “But we came in tonight thinking we could win, that we got this; we were better prepared, better than the first time we played them. Even when things got tough, we had guys stepping up, the guys who had to come in and they did their part, hit their shots. When we play right, we can beat anyone.”
And as for the Hernandez moment of brilliance, that saved the night when all appeared lost …
“I couldn’t believe it,” M.J. admitted, throwing his head back with a laugh. “And he was all falling backward … that shot was sooooo high!!!”
Indeed it was, until it wasn’t.
ALL NET is what it was.