January 17, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
Late in the night, the Cougars following instructions and keeping a dogged Bobcat bunch at bay, as they had for most of the game. Then Eddie Gonzalez got the ball for North, and a path to the basket opened up for the 6-7 senior, who’d already enjoyed one of his finest nights in Old Gold. Instead of breaking the play, and the slowdown, Gonzalez stopped and passed the ball.
He’d been one of the mainstays, helping lead his club to a vital home victory, with 10 points and eight rebounds, no fewer than six blocks at the head of a North defense that performed killer sequences Tuesday. But Gonzalez is a team player, often using his passing skills to keep the ball moving into the hands of a guard or wing. And after North tucked away a 50-42 win to rise to 2-0 in District 31-6A, 18-12 overall, the veteran postman explained his mindset.
“I actually like passing the ball,” said the spindly Gonzalez, who altered four or five other shots of the Bobcats that he did not swat away, proving once again he is one of the Valley’s premiere rejection specialists. “When I see an open teammate I try and get the ball to them, so that the team can score. And when they score, I feel like I scored too.”
A refreshing outlook, to be sure, in an era of high-profile scoring machines who look shot first, first, and first. Gonzalez did not have to shoot 50 times to be a real factor in his team’s success.
The victory marked the fifth time in a row that the Coogs, who started the league season with a blowout of P-SJ-A, have beaten the ‘Cats, who fell to 1-1, 18-9 and did not have the juice to follow up on their opening upset of La Joya at home last week.
From the start, Gonzalez was a terrorizing force down low, and other Cougars were fantastic on D for Coach Carlos Ramos, who has the program sailing well in his debut season. Senior Jorge Santa Maria was a whirlwind Tuesday, tasked with the chore of slowing down EHS leading point man, Jahi Fagan. Mission accomplished for the stocky and aggressive Santa Maria, who helped limit the athletic EHS man to just a single field goal, while scoring nine points himself.
North launched to momentum with that strong defensive effort, and a late second period rush installed the Coogs in a 30-23 halftime lead. With Christian Faz owning the basketball out front – on his way to a game-high 17 points in a relatively low-scoring affair that was ragged at times – the Coogs never relinquished the lead, though a hustling Fagan came up with a handful of steals in the fourth as the ‘Cats made their final push from behind.
Coach Zeke Cuellar’s group has been very solid in 2022-23 and gave a great effort to try and get back into it, even hitting 9 of 11 free throws, not a program area of expertise this season. Senior Ian Garcia battled all night against the imposing Gonzalez and contributed 15 points, while rangy Joaquin Soto was active in attacking the basket and taking his chances against North’s looming windmill.
In their victory over La Joya, the ‘Cats had junked up on D to confuse Coyote star Ethan Moya, holding him well enough in check. This time, though, it was North that decided on one kid to take away, in a key league and Rivalry Showdown.
“We’ve been emphasizing defense all season,” Ramos said after the triumph. “We’ve tried everything at one time or another, zone, man, whatever we need. The goal tonight was to force EHS to work for shots. And to take away at least one of their options.”
Ramos noted that having seen the Bobcats on film, he decided to try and limit the effect of the high-flying Fagan, averaging 15 points and eight rebounds this season. The determined efforts of Santa Maria, plus the continued mayhem wreaked by the towering Gonzalez down low: these were the signposts of that situation.
“We knew he was their leading scorer and that he can carry them at times,” said Ramos, who now looks to return to his former home Friday as the Coogs travel east to take on Econ, off to a 0-2 start. “We figured Ian was going to get his, so who else can we focus on? It was a good defensive effort tonight.”
It was to be a slightly bizarre evening, that much was apparent when the scoreboards started fidgeting early in the first quarter at North. At times, one of the two boards went completely dark, at times it stayed stuck on a previous score. Either way, it turned into a competitive struggle, with North getting choice looks, EHS searching for them.
North sophomore Josiah Cruz, who has been improving by the week, assisted to Gonzalez to begin, and after Big Ed redirected a Bobcat shot at the other end, down came the Coogs to a trading places act, the nimble Gonzalez slipping a pass to a cutting Cruz for two. Unselfish.
Gonzalez altered the next EHS shot with a long-armed wave and the pattern was set; the Bobcats got no chippies Tuesday, few open shots without multiple defenders bearing down on them. Though they have some long kids themselves, such as Garcia and Soto, Fagan as well, the visitors could not get into any sort of sync on the offensive end.
Luckily for Cuellar, he has one of the foremost hustlers in the Valley in trusty senior Gabriel Negrete, and that little rascal kept his team in the hunt the whole way with a slew of timely plays. The coach noted before the night that this Red and Blue edition has been sound so far at working on the little details of their game, trying to find ways to make things happen. And Negrete is like that. He’ll get to the loose ball and often nab it, will always pound the boards despite his somewhat slight stature, and is not, as they say, scared to compete.
Negrete now stood in to take a charge and soon came down to assist on a three-point make for the ‘Cats. But Santa Maria pulled off a wicked catch-and-shoot from 20 feet out, making it 7-5, home side. Then it was Faz, coasting to the goal as he will do, slapping a nifty Eurostep down on his way to the hole. Handles, quickness, and deception; the senior leads the team in scoring and is so secure with the basketball, too. Fine player.
Midway through the first, Gonzalez hopped for an offensive rebound, had to tip it twice – including once over the head of an unsuspecting victim in red – to score a putback. When Big Ed wants the rock, he can score in bunches. And Tuesday he was wanting it. Late in the period, Fagan exploded to the rim and rolled in a shot and then Fagan again, pilfered one and came roaring up to take a 30-footer at the buzzer. The buzzer, ah yes. At one stage of the night, early in the second in fact, the buzzer became a sentient being, deciding to stay loud and long for at least 30 seconds, making the crowd go whazzat? and eliciting a bit of chaos at the scorer’s table. North up 13-10, EHS seeking to find a proper road to travel.
Every time the ‘Cats could make a steal or a move, Gonzalez seemed to be there, waiting. No one was waiting, however, for senior Darian Garza of North, who was obscenely open and obliged by hitting the triple for a 4-point lead at 16-12. Then it was Soto’s turn to star, as he drove the lane against the North stoppers and ended up opposite side, flipping in a fabulous reverse layin. Negrete grabbed a rebound against the grain and on the next sequence barreled in to force a turnover. Every successful team needs a Negrete. He even canned a bomb late in the night, this guy!
But Faz was easy like Sunday morning, driving and tossing a runner in off the backboard, whereupon Santa Maria and junior Joseph Cruz got in on the block party with denials at the defensive end. Bobcat freshman Axel Navarro, pressed into service amid recent depth issues on Wisconsin, then responded with a conversion for EHS, as Cuellar’s gutty group just kept working. Cuellar seems to find them everywhere in recent times, always cobbling together a quality unit when some people might doubt it could be done. The General.
As the second wore on, North got stronger as Joseph Cruz knocked in a three off a pass from Faz, while EHS was cold as a stone. With less than a minute left, Faz, now totally recovered from a foot ailment that kept him out of part of December, coolly sank a long one for the 7-point halftime advantage. Home boy is tough, man.
The third began with more of the same from the Coogs, as Faz whistled past a defender and converted a lefthanded layup. At this point, Ramos called for the patient attack, some ball movement, taking the sting out of the game with what was now an 11-point lead.
“I learned that from Lalo Rios firsthand,” the coach explained with a chuckle. “Once at Econ we were playing Vela, were down 18-3 but came back big time. But as we tried to get up there, Vela just pulled the ball out, slowed it down. Looked for the cutters, nothing rushed. The key is to find good shots off it.”
So now North was doing that, working the ball around the perimeter, finding post Gonzalez in the middle, and seeing him distribute the ball well to the wings. EHS had to come out and press the issue, being behind, and this played into Old Gold hands at times.
Gonzalez now blocked another shot but EHS snared the carom, only to miss a second attempt shortly thereafter. Santa Maria ripped one away from a foe and steamed in for a layup, and then received an assist from Josiah Cruz to put North up, 36-23. Santa Maria stayed hot, this time off a fine feed from Gonzalez, but Garcia of EHS kept the fire burning with successful free throws. He and the ‘Cats rallied to within 9 at the close of the stanza, 39-30, aided by a three-point play, Old School, from Soto, who must have grown at least two inches taller since last year. Maybe more. Maybe there was a chance for the ‘Cats.
When Garcia spotted up inside the key to nail a sweet J, and then the defense forced a walk, the door had opened that much wider. But another Gonzalez swat ended the momentum and at 6:05, North was up 7, despite two free throws from EHS lanky newcomer Lorenza Watson. Still, the Coogs could not get far away from their rivals, who scratched and clawed all evening.
Faz made the greatest assist that will not be recorded as such, when he spun at the elbow and delivered a perfect fizzing pass in the middle of doing so, the ball zipping to a waiting corner chum who then misfired on the jumper. What a move, though.
EHS was faulty in possession down the stretch and failed to cut too far into the lead, though Fagan as stated was fairly possessed with the spirit in the latter stages, racing around the court trying to stem the tide. Garcia kept slamming to the goal against Gonzalez and it became a 5-point affair when Garcia beat the imposing defender on a fearless foray, but then a defensive lapse, which Garza of North took advantage of for an easy two. The rest was gravy, North winning by 8.
It had been some night for North’s big man, as he proved that one doesn’t have to score 40 to be a major plus for the squad. Gonzalez showed all kinds of ways to be effective. He sometimes dreams of heading overseas to play basketball some day. Now, though, he’s concentrating on team, win, title.
“We have played a lot of competitive teams in non-district, and it has gotten us ready for district,” he said, packing gear into his truck in the parking lot, about to go back into the gym to root on the Lady Coogs in their trial against the EHS girls. “We have been working on defense a ton, every day, and we’re trying to force the play to the side, double team, stuff like that. And if they get to me, I try and make sure guys have to take tough shots. And like I said, I like passing sometimes: if a teammate scores, we score, and that’s cool with me.”