February 17, 2022
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
HARLINGEN – Maturity is a funny and elusive duck, and one never can quite pinpoint the moment it manifests itself for good. In classic myth, the bildungsroman, or coming of age tale, there is a magic instant where everything crystalizes, making clear that a breakthrough has happened; it is formative. In real life, rather more murky and yet no less poignant.
For the Lady Bobcats, Tuesday’s bi-district clash at Harlingen South marked a palpable turning point for a squad that has weathered all sorts of obstacles along the rocky 2021-22 way. Coach J.D. Salinas’ crew went through the loss of 60 percent of the starting lineup from last season but has happily emerged now as just another fine edition of a program that has been a winning machine for a long time.
In notching their 30th victory of the campaign and advancing to the area round for the sixth season running, the Lady Bobcats showed that though part of its core may still be sophomore-driven, the seniors are there to do their business, too, and together the EHS charge was fierce, steady, and undaunted against a worthy foe.
Having been through ups and downs this year, including two deflating losses to rival Vela that cost them the title, the Lady ‘Cats came out to prove something in bi-district. And so they did.
The maturity of the team was illustrated at various junctures, mainly in the ability to adjust on the fly. After hitting some outside shots in the early going Tuesday, the well went a tad dry. Instead of banging their heads on a door that was for the moment impassable, they simply went for Plan B.
Driving to the goal with relentless tenacity, EHS attacked the Lady Hawks with abandon, easing into a 5-point lead by the half and outplaying them in the second half to cap a 58-41 win that sends the program on to a rematch against Laredo United South.
Earlier in the slate, the Lady ‘Cats were handled somewhat roughly by what has turned out to the dominant team out west and now get another shot at them, after the Lady Panthers defeated SA Warren in bi-district Tuesday. But the EHS five that faced United South in late November is not the same group that will line up this time. They have endured and they have grown. And it should be a real cat fight in area.
Sophomore Emily Carranco, who produced a fabulous performance with a season-high 26 points and added eight rebounds, was at the fore of the success.
“We definitely had to adapt tonight after the early part,” said Carranco, whose strength and surprising quickness off the dribble should not really be a surprise anymore to those who follow the team. By the end of the night, when she had punished the smaller South defenders with a 13-point explosion in the fourth, Carranco was feeling mighty satisfied.
“The thing is, when someone drives, a teammate is open,” she explained, adding that when defenders come to help, she tries to keep her head up and spot the unmarked pal.
Carranco also suggested that personally, she is starting to understand how to handle the pressure of being a team focal point.
“This season, even into district, I was not prepared for it, I think, to be a leader,” said the 6-footer who averaged 13 ppg and eight boards, placing near the top of the team charts in assists and steals, leading in blocks. “But as the season goes on, I think I have gotten better at that, and all of us have, we are starting to figure it out.”
Salinas knew that there was a mountain to climb this season, as he melded senior kids such as Genesis Hall and Larissa Martinez with the super sophomore trio of Carranco, Maddy Martinez, and Kiki Fagan.
“We have been trying to build culture this season, find out just who we are,” he said before the tip Tuesday. “And it takes time; there’s no way to force it or make it happen overnight. These girls have faced their share of challenges, and come through well, I mean, we have 30 wins when a lot of people might have been counting us out because of this or that.”
Fagan was another Lady ‘Cat who came up prime in the clutch in bi-district, popping in 17 points and giving outstanding defensive work against a smallish Lady Hawk team that did not lack for aggression or energy. With her father, former standout UTPA forward Chris Fagan, looking on, the athletic youngster was quick as a cat, clever as one too, and after the victory spoke about the way she plays the game.
“We were a little nervous at first, obviously but we relaxed and just started playing our game,” said Fagan, who hits for 12.2 ppg a night and has put some big-time scoring games in the book. When it was noted that she always seems to be running the court with a smile on her face, the quickster – who made a bushel of steals against South – had the answer.
“I try to do that because if you’re in a bad mood, you’ll probably play bad,” she commented. “So when we stopped hitting out shots, we didn’t get down; we just started driving, it was simple. This year the sophomores, we’re all playing more than last year and we’ve had to step up … but honestly, it feels pretty natural to me.”
Then there’s L. Martinez, who has always labored under the pleasant burden of her two older sisters, who were excellent players first at North and then at EHS. But the hard-nosed forward has embraced that challenge with grace. And classically sharp elbows.
“I felt like tonight I had to come out and prove myself, to my coaches and myself,” said Martinez, who banged to a team-best 11 rebounds in the triumph. “I always want to play good defense, work hard, and help the team win.”
As for the uphill climb that presented itself at season’s debut, the veteran Martinez had wisdom to share.
“Sure, it’s been a challenge but the main thing for me and the other seniors has been to find our role,” she explained. “And play our best in that role. This was a brand-new team in a lot of ways and it was going to take that sort of thing – everyone doing their job – for us to make it. I think we’ve done well at that so far.”
BEEN HERE, DONE THAT
The first interesting element of Tuesday’s postseason match was the gym at South. One half expected to see a sweaty jersey belonging to EHS assistant coach Bianca Salinas wadded up in the corner. She was of course Bianca Torre when she flew across the girls’ basketball scene a generation ago to lead the Lady Hawks to untold riches, later becoming the all-time leading scorer in Pan Am history. In fact, the challenge is out there to any coaching staff in the Valley who thinks it can hang with the mixed five of Salinas, former North great Natalie Alaniz, the Awesome Olveras (George and Aaron) and any other fifth wheel in the near vicinity. Forget it. Death.
But none of those legends would be in the lineup Tuesday, so the task fell to the current roster to get ‘er done.
It was a brisk beginning, with Fagan stealing one and sailing for the lefty lay, she and Hall jumping out fast on the shifty little South guards. L. Martinez and Hall combined for a steal and Carranco converted: it was 8-0, awful fast.
When the Lady Hawks slammed in a 3, Carranco came right back with own of her own, but South had woken up and as the first period wore on, began to find some freedom on the dribble drive. With two minutes left, EHS was down 1, and this period of soul-searching would be the key juncture.
Salinas (J.D.) noted that the girls have been in a number of close games this season, managing a series of wins in the last minute, sometimes, second(s). So he figured that when things got dicey in bi-district, as they generally do given the quality of the opposition, his kids would show what they were made of. An EHS trademark for years, the ability to adjust and keep throwing blows.
Fagan tied accounts at 14 near the end of the quarter with another steal and basket, steaming downcourt like a sprinter, which she is, in track.
To start the second, L. Martinez corralled a difficult defensive rebound leading to a drive from Fagan; the latter had done the mental math, was using her fleet wheels to fly past the Lady Hawk defenders, and it was working.
Carranco too was morphing rapidly and for a “post,” she can sure put the ball on the floor and go. Seeing that she was too quick and crafty for the Lady Hawk guarding her, No. 10 began to exploit the mismatch to salutary effect. Getting the enemy on her hip, Carranco wheeled this way or that, sometimes both ways, one after the other, up and under/faking Old School post moves, ending with either free throws or a bucket. And she was not just being offensive in this manner; Carranco also raced back to defend a South break and palmed a shaming blocked shot on a girl who thought she was in the clear at the rim. No … no ma’am!
Carranco was the fulcrum with seven in the second, but South battled well enough to hang in there. The home side led 19-17 at one early stage of the session but EHS gradually pulled into control. The Lady ‘Cats tied it at 22 when an assist from Fagan led to a Carranco hoop at 1:44. Five more points ensued, with zero from South as Fagan kept the ball alive on the offensive glass and Carranco eventually put it in for a three-point play, old-fashioned.
By the break, the Lady ‘Cats were relaxed and confident, having kept the composure and mental toughness their coach has been preaching from Day One. They had executed and adapted and were having some fun. It would only get better.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
Now, M. Martinez has been a vital cog in the machine all season with her cool-headed and agile exploits, good for double figures in scoring and a healthy tally of boards and blocked shots despite her slim frame. She was to come to the fore in the third as the Lady ‘Cats put a solid 15 points on the board to open up a 9-point lead. But first it was Fagan sinking one of the six bombs the crew hit Tuesday, and then combining with Martinez on a steal. L. Martinez added a resounding rejection and then scored from a tough angle inside after making a superb catch of a Carranco lob. That made it an 11-point lead and when M. Martinez knocked in two treys, it helped withstand a rush from the Lady Hawks, who desperately wanted to avoid being eliminated on their home court.
Nonetheless, this was the final result as EHS outscored South, 16-8 down the stretch with Fagan looping in another 3 and Carranco, as previously noted, flat going bananas with a tremendous closing flourish. Late in the game, EHS held the ball, passing and cutting like the Globetrotters, denying South a sniff while its traveling rooter group started up the “Bobcats, Bobcats” chant to celebrate the outcome.
Coach Salinas, who now will prepare his girls for another serious challenge, was pleased afterward, praising the play of the squad.
“I think we did a good job of adjusting, especially at the half and we kept attacking, getting to the rim,” he said. “Emily had a great game tonight, she is so versatile in what she can do. And Larissa, well, she was aggressive, she played with energy, she really made a difference for us. Everyone did well tonight, they saw what needed to be done, they made the adaptations, and they never lost their cool.”
In other words, the Lady Bobcats have faced obstacles, worked their tails off, matured steadily, and endured, and here they are. Another 30-win season, a chance at the third round. Just like old times, all over again!