February 13, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for selct game photos
It’s been a very excellent season for the Cougars so far, with 24 wins, a top 10 ranking in the Valley, and a probable second place finish behind Vela in the District 31-6A race. Coming into Tuesday’s home game against Econ, Coach Rudy Garcia’s team had lost just twice in 14 league starts, to the SaberCats, and had clipped the Jags by 4 the last time these two collided, Jan. 26 out east.
Before the tip, Garcia noted that he has been pleasantly surprised at the way his group has come together.
“When we play team ball, we do very well,” he said. “The defense at times has been great, and we have some guys who have improved a lot this season, like Big Eddie [Gonzalez]. I wasn’t sure we would have this many wins, but the guys have worked hard, bought into the team concept, and here we are.”
North had won seven in a row, Econ four of five as both make their late-season push into the postseason, as two-three seeds, Vela first and EHS fourth. For the Coogs and Jags, then, Tuesday was not total pressure time, though Econ (10-5 before the tip) still had dreams of tying the Coogs for runner-up honors. Vela (14-1) wrapped up the crown with a win over Pharr North (9-7) Tuesday, meaning the Bobcats (9-6) will make it even with a loss to Econ Tuesday, because they swept the season series with PN. All four city teams in, boom!
Now, after a convincing 67-50 romp over the home Coogs, Econ must beat EHS and hope that a poor Mission outfit can somehow upset the Coogs that night.
That probably won’t happen, but Coach Carlos Ramos got a terrific effort from his kids against North, as senior Ray de Leon rambled to 32 points and the supporting cast was steady and sometimes more, chiming in well with a series of timely plays.
The 6-foot-7 Eddie Gonzalez, lauded by his coach as a player who has continued to get better, put in a season-high 20 points, even though he didn’t touch the ball much until midway through the second period. By then, poor shot selection and lapses on defense had put the Coogs in a pickle.
Though down just 6 at the break, North was outplayed in the second 16 minutes, de Leon putting on a late show with 13 points in the fourth, including several outrageous highlight-reel moments. He topped the 30-point mark for the seventh time in 15 league contests.
But really, de Leon had vital impact in other areas, with steals and blocked shots, assists too; the Valley’s most prolific statsheet stuffer was in versatile form Tuesday, and his teammates benefited. Trouble for the Coogs, who got some fierce work from Noni Rios (seven boards) and consistent scoring from Gonzalez, but not much else.
Once Econ got up double digits in the third, it started spreading the floor and running the passing/cutting game, slicing the North defense into shreds. Particularly effective in this set was senior Orlie (kaboom, finally, got the spelling right!) Martinez, who had several sweet feeds to open teammates. The decimation was accented well on a late sequence where senior Dalys Hernandez slipped to the basket for a layup without a defender even seeing him, much less attempting to guard him. One-on-none.
Another star of the night was senior Rolando Moreno, who hustled to a 15-point night, his high for the league slate, and hit some money shots when the outcome was still on the line. Fellow senior M.J. Barrientos ran the attack with precision, helped collapse around Big Eddie, and stood in for a couple of charges; the team drew four Tuesday as the Coogs started to try and force the issue once they fell behind.
Having scored an average of 77 ppg in their last four victories, the Coogs ran dry against Econ, their 50 points marking the third lowest output in district, ahead of the 49 and 41 managed against the champ SaberCats.
The game was different than the first clash between rivals, when North got out to a sizeable lead – 17 after three – and withstood a frantic comeback from the Jags to win, 60-56. Tuesday, the Coogs last led early in the second, and were up 19-16 before the Jags zoomed to a 9-0 finish to the half. From there, the visiting Orange were off and running, never to be caught.
THE GAME BEGINS
Rios is a sturdy chap who will mix it up, and he was active to start the night. So was junior Sebastian Lopez of the Jags, who canned a three-point shot and drew a charge. Moreno hit the offensive boards and made a steal, and de Leon flew to the goal for an 11-5 lead. Lopez rang the ball again after Barrientos – who led the team with 10 rebounds – swept in for an offensive board, which he flipped to the open Lopez. It was 16-7 late in the period when Gonzalez got a pass inside, turned and scored.
Averaging about 10 ppg and eight rpg, with 60 blocks now, the lanky post with the soft touch needs to see the ball more. In the early going, however, he did not.
Hernandez of the Jags, he of the Atomic Bomb of weeks past to help beat Vela, did not need any last-second miracles in this one. He just brought the hard hat and lunch pail, and hustled through the night, making plays to help the Orange come out on top. He registered a slick block on a North guard’s attempted three and then stepped in to coerce a Coog into a charge.
Now Gonzalez started seeing the rock more, rallying his group back into shape. Conversely, de Leon was off to a middling start, missing three downtown shots – he is normally a plus-50 percent shooter from beyond the arc – and so decided to start putting the ball on the deck. Wise choice, eventual bad tidings for the North defenders.
But for now, the Jags went 4:30 without a basket, North pulling ahead, and it took the late rush already mentioned to get Ramos’ crew on the good foot again. De Leon raced to the hoop for a lefty layup – he made a number of them from portside – after Hernandez had scrambled after a loose ball and unleashed a perfect outlet pass. By the time Barrientos worked the dribble drive for a strong finish, it was 25-19, Jags, at the horn.
De Leon cruised by the entire North D for a hoop to begin the second half and the gutty Moreno nailed a bomb, assist from Martinez. When the Jags are clicking, it looks easy for them out there, and this half would illustrate it. De Leon went into the lane and made a fallaway jumper, all net, jumping so high that the ball seemed icy on its path to the goal. Then Hernandez jumped a pass for the steal and found a streaking Moreno to make it 34-21.
North had not gotten into anything resembling an offensive set, instead settling for one-on-one moments, rather than engaging in what its coach had mentioned before the night: team ball.
Having left his outside shot behind, de Leon now posted up a smaller North guard and was fouled. During his two free throws, the Cougar crowd serenaded him with chants of “Overrated!” and um, that is not a risk-free idea, really.
Anyway, Gonzalez scored and-one for the Coogs and Garcia’s gang looked ready to shrug off its poor performance and storm back in. Then Barrientos of Econ made what might have been the key play, his team up 8, as he grabbed a defensive rebound by blocking out the 6-7 Gonzalez, whereupon a Martinez-to-de Leon pass produced a 10-point lead and the third foul on the North center.
From there, de Leon intimidated a North shooter into an air ball and Moreno soon rolled to the basket for two. De Leon was beastly on defense now, leaping everywhere, contesting every pass, and that is something he seldom gets credit for. Yes, Ray averages 28 points, 10 boards, five assists, steals, and blocks. But those are numbers. They translate, on the court, into periods of time where he will just not let you play, man, at all … gimme that ball!
Still, North was sorta in range after three, down 9 as Jorge Santa Maria, one of the unsung soldiers who has carved out a solid junior campaign, provided some scoring.
And then again, with Ray starting to feel it, this one prolly done. First, he went inside, slipped out toward the key and flipped in a floater before anyone could even jump. After stealing the ball on North’s next possession, he fed Martinez for a soaring layup, and Moreno then stood in to elicit yet another offensive foul on North. Still, Gonzalez continued to pound away, keeping the Coogs within shouting distance.
But with the Jags spreading the floor and using their athleticism, the trailing Coogs having to gamble, it got done fast. De Leon drove the lane to put one in against Gonzalez and Martinez again made a superb assist, this time to a cutting Barrientos as the lead grew to 13.
Santa Maria knocked in a trey for the Coogs but he was the only North kid to score from the field in the fourth besides Gonzalez.
De Leon punctuated the victory with a simply unmatched moment, rising high on the right side, confronting the looming Gonzalez there, whose long arms stretched halfway to Faysville. Hanging in the air like Old School Doctor J, de Leon held the ball high behind his right ear as he bent his back, airwalked, and waited for Gonzalez to come down. He did, and Econ’s scoring sensation was still in the air when he flipped the ball in. Just … wait, what? Insane. Ray. Pure Filth.
That’s when Dalys played Invisible Man, reappearing under the hoop to score and make it 61-44.
Hand it to Eddie, he kept on coming all game long, and should be one of the district’s top players next season. But he got a lesson from the master now, as after making an exquisite spin move in the lane, Gonzalez suffered a block from an elevating de Leon. At the other end, Ray then went dipsy-doo with an up-and-under layup, plainly showing off now, but what can one say. Anyone who might complain too loudly about that is probably secretly wishing they could do the same scintillating things with a basketball that he can make happen. Calling Dr. Seuss: No. 2 can do. Can you?
Even when de Leon made a mistake, sweaty palms losing control of a dribble midway through, the REAL theme of the night repeated itself. The indefatigable Hernandez roared after the offending Coog from behind to steal from the stealer, coming back upcourt with a sly little grin. And the ball.
In a nutshell, when the Jags are grooving, they can beat anyone in the RGV. When all the kids are kicking it, better watch out. When de Leon keeps his cool, gets the others involved, he is all the more marvelous. And yet one notes that North, as earlier advertised, has an exceedingly strong body of work this season as it advances into the playoffs, with a shot at making some noise despite this setback. A wily veteran such as Garcia – who has seen it, done it, won it, 500 times over – will no doubt be able to use the Econ clash as an object lesson, a good wakeup call for an excellent squad that just didn’t quite follow the gameplan Tuesday. It happens.