January 13, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
MCALLEN – So there are options out there, concerning how to play against the top team in the Valley. Some teams have chosen to slow the ball down, try and keep possession and hope to patiently work to decent shots. Some have selected the challenge option, meaning they’ll run and gun with the best and imagine they can keep up. Neither is the greatest bet, really, because all things being equal, Vela is going to beat you, no matter how creative you get.
This was the story at frigid Memorial Friday night, as the Lady Mustangs decided to spread the court and work from the corners, hoping their quick little guards could find space on the dribble and locate the team’s twin big kids inside. By doing so, Memorial was thinking that the Lady SaberCats couldn’t score if they didn’t have the ball. And might start racking up the fouls in attempts to clear the logjam and get cranking.
Problem was, Vela kept getting the ball anyway, as its quickness and determination on defense closed off the passing lanes, kept the guards from penetrating, and led to a series of steals and blocks in the frontcourt that the visitor turned into a healthy number of points at the other end.
The result was a 58-26 walkover, making the Lady Sabes 11-0 in District 31-5A and dropping the Lady ‘Stangs to 7-4. It was a bit closer than the first match between the two, which ended 77-37 at Vela back on Dec. 9. But it was not really “eye-test closer” in reality, as the Blue and Black were clearly the superior quintet, racing to a 13-4 lead after a period and a bulge of 30-7 by halftime.
Coach Lottie Zarate spied what was happening from the get-go, and to her satisfaction, the girls picked up on it fairly quickly as well.
“That was what they were doing, some coaches call it Carolina,” said Zarate of the methodical tactic designed to slow down a faster group, induce the reach. “That’s what you want, for the girls to see what’s happening in front of them and make adjustments. It’s part of the game, seeing what strategy the other team is using and being able to deal with it.”
Another element in Vela’s game, besides growth of the collective Hoops IQ, is the development of depth. Everyone knows that senior Emma Lucio and junior Janai Coleman are the big wheels on the chariot, as they average 40 ppg between them. Friday they were just dandy but had some assistance from several other teammates. Sophomore guard G.G. Betancourt, in particular was outstanding, helping the defensive effort with her length and hustle, and scoring at the rim and getting to the free throw line. Senior Gaby Tijerina, who had scored 11 points with six boards in the last outing, contributed solid minutes against Memorial, especially early when she canned a couple of shots.
Much has been made of the offensive capabilities of this crew, and a 67 ppg average is obviously something to talk about glowingly. But Zarate and her staff are always ready to remind that defense is where this team really excels. Memorial scored a season low Friday after having been held to 31 points by Weslaco and 30 by Brownsville Vets. Every time the Lady Mustangs tried to get their guards loose, two and three Vela girls were there to use their quick feet and long arms to deny. Memorial did find the trees down low a few times, but not with enough frequency to ever influence the result.
Vela has now held the opponent to 39 points or fewer in 15 games, compiling a 21-4 record overall to go with the unblemished league mark. The club has not lost since back in November and is trying to blow the doors off its new league. Still, Rowe (10-1) is right behind the Lady Sabes, with the two scheduled to meet again Jan. 24. The Lady Warriors have never beaten Vela in seven tries, and in fact, Zarate’s program has gone a glittering 13-4 against McAllen schools over 11 seasons, and 14-3 versus Sharyland and Pioneer. First though, before that rematch with Rowe, it’s another road game Tuesday, on the road against a sound 9-2 Sharyland gang: first round score Dec. 13: 71-29, home chicks.
After the game Zarate joked (maybe) that she is going to make her group practice in weighted vests all week, in the search of a new challenge during what has been a smashingly successful opening run down in 5A. But seriously, she knows that while her team may have run the table so far, and totally dominated an outmatched Memorial Friday, tougher times are coming.
“We have to get ready for the playoffs, there’s no doubt about it,” she said, noting that in the final seven nights of the endless journey that is 31-5A, she needs to see still more improvement from what is assuredly the RGV’s No. 1.
“We will have more challenges in the coming weeks, I keep reminding them of that,” said Zarate, ever the clear-eyed realist in such matters. “Tonight, seeing the strategy Memorial was using, that was a challenge and we did alright with it. They wanted to use that offense to get us into foul trouble, which worked sort of, but we were able to withstand that.”
WORTH A TRY
The tricks began with the opening tip when Memorial was cheeky in sending its shortest starter, at 5-0, almost, up to jump against a significantly taller opponent. And the hijinks continued with the home side stationing a kid in each corner and patiently/nervously working the ball around. “Hoosiers” or what? Vela was undaunted for the most part as Tijerina connected on a shot and forward Karysen Hackerott turned in a couple of nice passes early on.
A recurring theme then developed, as Betancourt zipped over for a steal and steamed in for free throws. She and the rest of the defense recognized the drill and acted accordingly, though Coleman did end up sitting out for five minutes in the first with foul woes. Meanwhile, Lucio was scrapping with the solid yet tiny powder blue guards, eventually finding ways to dribble around or through them using her strength. She located Fey Vasquez for a lovely assist as Vela started to percolate and Vasquez then registered an emphatic block at the other end. It was 6-0 before Memorial finally found one of its posts, unguarded inside, and at that, Zarate tersely called for a timeout, during which she remonstrated with her charges about the lapse.
From there, smooth sailing as Lucio found Tijerina open for the triple and a 9-4 lead, followed by a Lucio hoop and a Lucio pass. The stellar senior, headed to UTSA soon enough, came roaring down the court and made a sharp feed off a hard stop, pounding a perfect bounce pass in rhythm to Vasquez, who filled the lane like a glove for the gimme.
Lucio was even there for another type of assist when Hackerott went down hard at the defensive end, the flashy guard coming over to will her teammate back to good health, which was indeed what transpired after a moment’s pause.
Though their tactics were keeping the score down, the Lady Mustangs could not break through Vela’s defense, with turnovers leading to run-outs such as the one Lucio now executed good for an and-one layup, 16-4 Vela. Even when the home side got to the free throw line, it didn’t work out, as Memorial missed the first attempt on a shooting foul and stepped over the line too early on the second. Lucio then ripped a merciless steal from a hapless Lady Mustang and cruised on downcourt to set up. Mega-savage.
The highlight reel continued as Lucio, who just plays at a different speed and with a unique vibe, turned in a dirty no-look pass to Betancourt, who tallied at the rim. Even the Memorial onlookers had to smile at that one, because one just doesn’t see that sort of French pastry served up at most local ball games.
Despite all that jazz, Betancourt is in some ways the most important player, and when she plays well, increasingly the case these days, the team is that much tougher to handle. She scored again on the drive, and Lucio emitted a super loud “Hey!!” in praise of her backcourt mate’s strong move.
Late in the second period, Lucio came down on the secondary break, straightened up in a flash and whipped another perfect ball to an oncoming teammate. She sees the floor. And everything else. Court sense, preternatural, hers.
Having been denied by whistle the chance to show her excellence, too, Coleman rebounded to become the star of the second half, putting in a barrage of points to tally 20 for the night, using her skills and physical abilities to make a mockery of attempts to guard her. The junior juggernaut made steal after steal, sometimes with quickness and sometimes with total strength. She and Lucio play with such intensity that sometimes one feels that they will just explode into space like superheroes, so relentless is their desire to play the game. At one point, Lucio shuttled out of bounds to save one, did so behind the back, and when it was decided that she had not done so, she angrily slapped the wood at Memorial with an alarming crack. !
Perhaps the finest moment from Coleman during her amazing show of dominance in the half came when she hit a long three-pointer, wheeled back down to defend, and ended up having to dance deftly around the poor referee who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Watch the little things with these two phenomenal players and the experience will pay off time and time again. Special.
You know the game is over when the subs hustle in off the bench, replacing the starters … in the third quarter. Ouch and so be it, because by that time, Vela was so far ahead that the Lady Mustangs would have needed GPS to find them.
NOTES: In other hoops action Friday, the Lady Bobcats of EHS recorded their third victory in succession, beating La Joya behind a night of amazing accuracy from deep, hitting 10 three balls, five from junior Maddy Martinez. Now 3-0 and leading the league, the Red and Blue will face off Tuesday against a North group that has won two on the trot after Friday’s decision versus P-SJ-A. Econ, though, has lagged a bit lately, with a 1-2 league start, and dropped a decision Friday against Mission while the other rivals were winning. The Lady Jags are at La Joya next and need to find the winning formula once again to be able to stay in the 10-game 6A race. Time is of the essence.
The 6A boys kicked off Friday with the Bobcats registering a fantastic win over La Joya, while North easily wasted P-SJ-A but the Jaguars of Econ went down against Mission. Coach Zeke Cuellar’s ‘Cats will come crosstown to North on Tuesday for one of the most hotly anticipated matchups of the season so far.