January 25, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game gallery
It’s not they played badly, per se, during the first stretches of the 31-6A slate, as Coach Romeo De la Garza will attest. The Jaguars more than held their own against a highly touted La Joya squad, leading for portions of the night before fading. They battled like mad against rival North last week and nearly made the upset, before falling by 7.
So despite a 0-3 start to league play, De la Garza was not down or disappointed Tuesday, although as a perfectionist he always wants more-better-more. He just wants his Econ ball club to continue to improve on certain aspects of the game, such as making the key play at the right time. Because he knows that if they can do that, their challenges in 2022-23 – lack of depth, interior defending, among them – the team has a solid chance of ending up in the money once the schedule is complete.
That’s why Tuesday night was so important, because at home against a struggling P-SJ-A bunch that also came in winless, the Jags asserted themselves in multiple ways, emerging with a vital 67-52 victory that did much to buoy program spirits and perhaps point to similarly happy days to come.
From the outset the Orange was ferocious on defense, with senior guard Angel Hernandez front and center, playing with intensity and causing havoc. His backcourt mate, the scoring machine also known as Sebastian Lopez, also enjoyed an outstanding evening with the stop troops, taking three charges – the Jags earned six as a group in an excellent display of timing and positioning – and oh, by the way, dropping a cool 27 points.
In a closely contested war, the Jags led early, got behind a bit, and then threw down a 24-point performance in the third period, eventuating in a win that the guys had all been anticipating for days. One they had to have. Though the Jags had real trouble on their hands from a Bear lineup including some big, strong kids, they worked hard to contain these athletes and won the day partly because their guard play was superior.
A list of other reasons for the pleasing result would include expert marksmanship from outside, as a club that normally connects on less than four three-point shots per game (at a middling 27 percent clip) tossed in eight tries from beyond the arc, in 13 tries (scorching!). In fact, the torrid Jags bombed away at a glittering 56 percent from the field all told. Hernandez, whom De la Garza praised before the opening tip for the way the former has stepped up his performance lately, made three bombs Tuesday, as did senior Ethan Barron, notable in the fall for his exploits on the football field. Every time the Bears started barreling down low to score and draw fouls, someone in white would come down at the other end and use speed and agility to can a big shot. Style matchup.
Then there was the toil of spindly junior Alexis Betancourt, whose stats for the night, two points and five rebounds, do not do enough to show the way he hustled, altered shots, kept plays going, and generally played downhill, hard, against the enemy. On one second half possession he found himself surrounded by three burly Bears in the paint, and was getting cracked about something fierce. But instead of forcing the issue, or losing possession, Betancourt was poised enough to dish out to the wing, where a teammate knocked down an open look. That’s what De la Garza is talking about.
“I can’t say enough about how hard we have worked; these guys have the right attitude and they are getting there,” said the coach, who has captured 13 overall victories in his debut season out east. “We were a little shaky in the first half; we really didn’t do a good enough job executing the defensive game plan. But we showed growth with this win, and that’s what I am looking for most of all, it’s all a coach can ask for. An understanding of what needs to be done. The next step is being able to recognize those situations and execute when the time comes. That part we’re still working on. But we hit some shots when we needed to, and we were able to come out on top.”
In all respects it was a timely result, the prize, a night of celebration after having begun the race behind the eight ball. The 15-point win ended a four-game losing streak overall and illustrated the potential De la Garza sees in his group. But it was not an easy thing, to be sure. The Jags had to work to subdue a Pharr unit that perhaps played over its head at times, given its record.
Right off the bat, Lopez was sharp, scoring two quick baskets, the second of which ended with the silky senior sliding on his backside after a strong drive amid contact from the D. Averaging nearly 24 ppg this season, Lopez presents quite a problem for defenders, because he has superb one-on-one ability off the dribble, excellent range on the jumper, and a desire to reach the basket that has resulted in a mammoth total of 274 free throw attempts so far in 2022-23. Dude plays!
He puts it on the floor, glides by with quickness, and shows a soft touch in the lane, in traffic. A born scorer, which is handy because the Jags had gotten used to the point-making magic of graduated Ray De Leon, who filled the scorebook with incredibly tasty numbers for three-plus seasons before moving on. Ironically, Lopez is not just a gunner; he sometimes creates opportunities on offense by playing tough, quickhanded defense, as indicated by the five steals he came up with against the Bears.
“I think that defense can always lead to offense,” Lopez said after the win. “I got some steals tonight, four or five, and was able to go down and score, easy baskets, so defense there, it means points on offense.”
He and Hernandez went to work out front, limiting the ability of the visitor to run its sets. But the sheer physicality of the Bears was a factor, as stated. Hernandez tried to do his part in keeping the trees at bay, hustling to a create 5-second violation early on by jumping on his man and hounding him into panic mode. At the other end, Nathaniel De la Garza, the coach’s son, slammed to a pair of free throws: a few key plays, if made satisfactorily, often lead to promising developments. Pertinent illustration there. String the positive sequences together and get on a run, it becomes a habit.
Still one could see what kind of night it was by the way the Bears got some luck on their side, as they led 15-9 in the first after a clunky three-point shot smashed the backboard and went in. He didn’t call it, btw.
Nonetheless, Econ didn’t flinch, scoring the next eight points to lead, 17-15, after one. Hernandez, on his way to a season-high 14 points, was sweet with a pair of bombs, bang-bang like, Lopez stepped in to draw a charge, and at the end of the period it was another football standout, Eduardo Davila, zooming in to put in a missed shot, at 0:03. The Orange is learning how to win the end of each quarter, how to grab some momentum, and Davila’s key offensive board sent the team onward as the quarter expired. You make those clutch plays at home, crowd sure does like it.
The second stanza brought more credible play from the Jags, at least at first, as Hernandez made a lefthanded drive for two and De la Garza drew an offensive foul. The latter has enjoyed a productive sophomore season as the club’s second-leading scorer and made 7 of 8 from the line Tuesday.
But poor shot selection from the home side allowed Pharr to rally, as the Jags fell into forced efforts against the tide when a pass might have been a better option. Whereupon De la Garza instructed his guys to back the ball out, run some motion, and show patience and teamwork, which they did. Guidance.
Lopez stood in to take his third charge, popping back up wearing the grin of a guy who knew what needed to be done, and had done it. Then, at 3:02 of the half, he sailed a picturesque jumper from the deep left corner, the ball proscribing an exquisite arc as it floated high above the basket before nestling snugly inside the cords. Never gets old to say/hear: Swish!
Now it was Davila again, pounding to the boards for a stickback, and on came the Jags.
The main downbeat from the half was foul trouble, as Lopez picked up his third late in the second, and Hernandez was whistled for two quick ones. De la Garza has long been a straight man-to-man sort of coach, and yet has been versatile in his new gig, realizing that the zone defense, too can be effective.
“It will work in zone as long as you’re still aggressive out of it,” he explained. “We’d love to be running the court, staying in man, but sometimes personnel and circumstances dictate what you do. If you come with pressure, you run the risk of getting into foul trouble.”
P-SJ-A was able to slug its way to a 4-point lead by the break, but one had the sense that the Bears were tapping out, in terms of options, while Econ was starting to find the vibe.
HOME BOYS RISE
To return the favor of the first half, Hernandez started the third with a long 3 off the glass. He called it. But the enemy was still romping to the basket with its husky crew, knocking people around. Tuesday, many potentially offensive fouls were not adjudicated as such, with De la Garza and his coaching counterpart from the Tri Cities engaged in a steady and vociferous discussion with the officials about the aggressive nature of the competition. Betancourt came up with a steal and De la Garza the player gave the Jags the lead, 36-35 with a terrific dipsy doo drive that some might have seen him practicing during the pregame. Upside, lots.
After the Bears came back to retake the lead, Barron toed the 3-point line and delivered, and the teeter totter was on. Lopez slipped in to rob a Bear guard and cruise the other way for a layup and then fashioned a pullup in the lane that showed his timing and touch. After having gotten eight points in a foul-plagued first half, the smooth senior was to toss in 19 more after the break, including 10 in a masterful fourth quarter medley.
Excellent basketball, back and forth in the third until the Bear coach was flagged with a technical foul – the Jag fans serenading him with “T Him Up, T Him Up!” The free throw attempts and possession were a tonic, as Econ rallied via a trey from Lopez, a charge taken by the brave Betancourt, and the aforementioned pass off a “triple-team” from Betancourt, who assisted to Barron for a 50-44 lead at the close.
Lopez, who never looks rushed out there, waiting for the moment, flipped in a running one-hander, after which he indulged in a slight bit of showmanship by glaring faux intently at the poor cat who had failed, miserably, to guard him well enough. Confidence.
And the Jags were quick on the uptake for the next possession, as De la Garza hollered at his guys to clamp down on the ball when it found the corner. Betancourt left his man at the free throw line and raced over for the double team, hemming the Bear guard on the baseline and forcing a turnover. Little things, following instructions, on the fly, and producing. That sequence right there; bottle it. Repetition, learning, effort, execution. De la Garza Hoops in a nutshell.
Betancourt was now feeling it and rose high in the air to deny a P-SJ-A shot, only to get called for the foul. But instead of protesting or pouting, the forward was resolute in coming back for more. He worked Tuesday, that kid.
Midway through the period the Jags were playing well but Pharr was still down just six. Then Hernandez drove for a deuce and the foul, leading to a Key Juncture. It was Lopez again, deceptive and decisive, swooping in to rip a steal and go, again, from D to O, and whoever has been in that situation, one-on-none, knows that something about it gives one tiny pause … Don’t. Miss. This. Bunny. He didn’t. Magical psychology of the 10-point lead, and few teams can recover from double digits in the final eight minutes: P-SJ-A did not.
Soon another looping 3 from Barron, and De la Garza, during a timeout, reminded his guys that time was of the essence.
“Alright, about two minutes to go … dig in!”
With the guards rudely denying any attempts to dribble-drive, and the inside stalwarts forcing themselves on against fatigue, Econ tucked away the Dub.
Lopez, who is also an accomplished soccer player, happily, did more than his offensive numbers, i.e., the steals and charges. But one play he did not make was particularly impressive. He flashed onto his man outside the elbow and just missed poking the ball away, and as he went by the Bear, Lopez wheeled around in a tight circle, one arm held high and wide, the other low-steering him back into the play in a heartbeat. So acrobatic.
Betancourt put the stamp on the letter in style, soaring into the air to club a Bear shot almost even before it had left the hand; the sound it made was somewhere close to a “thunk!” and the East Side faithful howled with delight. In the olden times at the old school, they would have said, “Man, he stuffed you!” Which he did.
In rising to 1-3 in 31-6A, the Jags showed that when they are right, they are dangerous, meaning that upcoming opponents – such as EHS Friday, to finish the first half of the schedule – will not be sleeping on De la Garza’s contingent as the season rolls on.
When they make shots, they are tough to beat, and despite a relative lack of a long bench or tons of tall kids, the Jags are making some waves with the roster and personnel they have. Tuesday was a have-to for the club, and it was achieved. Now the Orange can settle in, continue to learn, progress, and grow, and continue also to show improvement in action, which is where it counts. There are no league unbeatens anymore, after La Joya’s tense 1-point nudge over North (3-1) Tuesday. The Bobcats (also 3-1)captured their 20th win of the campaign, beating Mission by 10, so the race is truly on.
Lopez, who has now fired in 20 points or better in 20 of 29 contests of a simply marvelous senior season, is fired up for what comes next. “This was a good team win, but we have to keep it going,” he stressed. “We played pretty well in some of those losses before, for instance against North. We were right there. If we keep playing like we have been, though, we’ll be good.”