February 21, 2023
By Greg SelberClick here for select game photos
The cutting of the nets is a longstanding and joyous tradition in basketball dating back several generations, although the celebration was not a thing yet in 1891, when the game first began. This is because the original baskets, says the myth, were very exactly that: baskets, peach baskets specifically, meaning no open bottom, no nets needed. Every time a team scored two points in those days, and it was not terribly often, someone would to have climb up a ladder – often it was Dr. James Naismith himself, the inventor of the game, doing the climbing – and retrieve the ball. Then there would be a center jump, something that takes place today only in rare occasions, such as the opening tipoff.
Anyway, we’ve come a long way since then, however Tuesday, there was E.J. Avelar, first hanging on the rim with a jubilant smile, and later sitting on top of the ladder, teammates happily draped in what was left over from the sliced cords. Avelar did not invent the game, obviously, but he and the SaberCats had just given a fine demonstration of how it is supposed to be played, via a 7-point victory over visiting Brownsville Pace. The score was closer than it might have been, given the dominant Vela performance in the second half – Coach Lucio Rodriguez’ band of brothers was up 15 at one stage before the desperate/done Vikings rallied to the final eight markers. It sends the club onward to the area round of the playoffs, where it will tackle a tough customer in Flour Bluff, now 25-10 following a Tuesday triumph over Laredo Martin.
For the Sabes, now 25-13, the game was a study in resilience, as early on, Pace got to the rim consistently for close shots and denied the Sabes same at the other end. Unable to get into the running game they so enjoy, the Sabes were buffeted by an active postman from Brownsville, standing 6-4, and a 6-1 wing who was using his length to some effect. Pace led by 4 at the end of a quarter and by 3 until a late rush from the home side which eventuated in a 2-point Vela advantage by halftime.
As the rest of the game unfolded, jitters of unfamiliarity having properly subsided, Rodriguez’ bunch took control, as junior Axel Garza scored 13 of his 17 points after the break and his teammates turned in excellent halves of quality work. By the time it was over, Avelar having matched Garza’s point total and the inside duo of junior Aiden Lopez and Jonathan Campos having battled inside to help neutralize the early prowess of the Pace bigs, the program was in a familiar and accustomed posture: cutting the nets, taking the pics, and moving on.
The Sabes will be in action for area, as will North, which clobbered Weslaco at home Tuesday, but half the city crowd has dropped out, EHS in a 1-point heartbreaker of a loss at Los Fresnos and Econ following a defeat at the hands of San Benito, on the road. For Vela, in the Dance for the 8th time in 11 seasons, it is a path well-known and oft-traveled as it has now collected 17 career playoff successes and several deep bracket runs, including the memorable trip to the state tournament in 2016 and two Sweet 16 appearances, one in 2015 and the other during Rodriguez’ first campaign, back in 2019.
The big news on Tuesday was everything, everywhere, all at once, as aside from the boys’ bi-district round in basketball, the school’s glorious girls’ unit was in the process of winning the Valley, over at Bert Ogden Arena, where it zonked Brownsville Vets to earn the program’s first voyage to San Antonio for the Sweet 16. Also on tap was a killer football match between North and Econ, won by the Jags on both girls’ and boys’ sides, along with a series of softball and baseball contests featuring city kids.
So one needed cloning Tuesday. The selection was the Vela boys, and the entertainment was outstanding, a hard-fought struggle between evenly matched foes that saw the Sabes totter, wonder, and then engage, steaming ahead to an emphatic result before a demonstrative crowd, not a few of them on the phone while watching the boys too, at least until the Lady Sabes were safely ahead.
KEY MUSTER AHEAD
Rodriguez commented before the task at hand, noting that because Vela had dropped its regular season finale – at home to Memorial Friday – he was thinking that his kids would be able to come out and reset.
“It was sort of tough because as some people said, we didn’t have much to play for,” said the coach, whose club had wrapped up the District 31-5A crown well before the last night and ended a glittering 16-2 in 31-5A. “We will be playing a different game tonight, maybe we were looking forward to this one, when we played Memorial, I don’t know. We will have weather their runs and come back strong. Pace is very good.”
This is how it shook out, Tuesday, as to begin, Pace was long and strong, working through pressure to find big kids close to the goal. The other distressing factor was that the Vikings seem to have come up with (co-opted?) a version of a Vela cheer – the old “yeeeaahhh!” that has been a Blue and Black tradition since the days of program pioneers such as Marky Castillo and Jimmy Cisneros, who were both on hand for bi-district. As was Nune!
Initially, the visiting Vikings had plenty of opportunities to cheer, as they limited Vela to one shot most possessions early on and scored high-percentage baskets at the other end. Luckily, Vela was able to hang tough, as mercurial sophomore J.P. Olivarez found senior big man Campos for a hoop. And Campos, grabbing boards and starting to hammer the opposing frontcourt men, was effective Tuesday, as was forward mate Lopez. As the night wore on, Vela got the hang of denying the trees, with Campos and Lopez – as well as the versatile Garza – finding the mark defensively out of the man-to-man.
The early nerves were also a factor, as during one 2-on-1 chance for Vela in the first period, the two Sabes got tangled up just inside the paint, the ball skittering away harmlessly and one of Rodriguez’ charges ending up minus a shoe somehow. But there was Campos, stoutly defending a Pace drive to stem the tide. Soon, though, the Vikes were playing volleyball again, locating four offensive rebounds on the same sequence before being rewarded with foul shots. The foul count worked in Pace’s favor in the first period, and the enemy made five free throws in a row.
Still, Vela was starting to boil, as Sam Sepulveda assisted to Avelar and Campos continued to be very active at both ends. When the Vikes converted a three-point play near the end of the period, it was 9-7 and at 0:42 it became 11-7, Vela rushing harried shots on offense. This was a storm partly weathered, meaning the first blows of the second period would be key.
Precocious Olivarez started the second with a long three-point make and then drove to the goal for a dish out to the corner, where Avelar connected from downtown to tie the game at 13. Continuing his penchant for dazzling stretches of a night, Olivarez then drove again, losing the ball but regaining it in the air; he landed and rose quickly, canning a jumper in the lane. Though he’s a typical soph in some ways: trial and error, enthusiasm and emerging upside, Olivarez is definitely not shy when it comes to bowing up to challenges.
But Pace continued to pound the boards, particularly at the offensive end, climbing back into a lead at 19-16. Garza went down after a collision with a Pace defender and for a moment, disaster beckoned. He was able to continue, and the game went on. Liveth Vela, again … honestly.
Now it was Avelar, with a healthy contingent of well-wishers in the stands, taking the reins. He came up with a vicious blocked shot on D and came down to elevate and sink a traffic J in the paint. Next he tossed a sweet lob to a leaping Garza, whose ability to make the moves backdoor, along with his lanky athleticism and solid range on the jumper, make him so difficult to guard. Avelar finished his masterpiece of the moment with a steal and dish to Olivarez, who found a whirling Sepulveda – who has his own faithful rooting ranks of family and friends – to cap the Sabe scoring for the half. The play was vintage Vela 2023, speed and precision, excellent passing, and conversion. After Pace had called the tune through parts of the half, the home boys were turning the thing around. Seven-to-two run to end the second, and Pace was Blinking Guy.
TIME TO SHINE
The draw was always going to be competitive, as most of the first-round action pitting 31 against 32 turned out to be. So naturally, Pace was not down and out, not by any stretch. The Vikings would step up in the second half but not before that kid, Olivarez, arched in a pullup that hung the net. Garza rose high for a rejection and on offense, he then showed his vision with a feed delivered in mid-air. Aexl got up high to field a pass and in the same motion shuttled it on to a teammate down low, a la Larry Bird (please to remember Larry Bird). Next Campos yanked down a pair of boards and Vela had solved the inside problem for the most part. In the final 16 minutes the team speed and pressure would move the Vikes further and further from the goal, and foul trouble would hurt the enemy effort. They were in for it now. Or were they?
Though Avelar knocked in two free throws using his uncanny shooting style, looping the ball with an almost cross-handed yet accurate spin, the Vikes tied it at 28 and then went ahead with a trey, though for the game, the backcourt from Brownsville was a tad overmatched. Avelar bounced one in to cut the margin, two of his 11 second half points, and when Garza went quickly baseline for a hoop and a foul, Vela led by 1 at 2:05.
Key junctures now, and the hustling Garza – he pressures the ball upcourt like a No. 9 in soccer should – stole one at midcourt and went in for another three-point opportunity. A blocked shot by Campos led to a follow shot from the same game soldier, and Rodriguez took his club into the final stages up 3 at 38-35.
The start of the fourth saw Garza tangle way up high with the Pace postman, massively ripping the ball into his possession after major contact, and at 6:55 Garza came down and stroked a long one for a 6-point advantage. It became nine with a play that went Diego Salinas to Campos and over to Garza, who tallied again from downtown amid much delirium. Time to finish, which has been one of the coach’s mantras for the season. At home, 9-point lead, all problems solved, and now to put this one away. Awesome Axel. Do it, 13.
Salinas was quick on the double team and Pace coughed it up, whereupon Olivarez attacked the defense with a shifty drive, finding the hot hand, Garza, who slipped in a slick fadeaway. Quick release, any angle. The Vikings, near the 5-minute mark, had not managed a single digit in the period, and Vela was definitely ready to cap it, having launched to an 8-0 run so far in the telltale period. Lopez got his chance to get into the offensive mix off an Olivarez look, and then Avelar zoomed all the way to a layup and a 50-36 advantage. Ball game.
Later it was Olivarez palming a defensive board with a cocky clap of one hand onto the ball, and then releasing a superb feed all the way downcourt, which Avelar caught and put into the net. This was Vela at its finest, defense to offense in an instant, superior conditioning allowing the versatile five to run circles around a tiring foe. If the Sabes had made their layups down the stretch, it would have grown into a 20-point blowout. Credit to Pace, a group that never quit working and gave the home team a solid challenge in bi-district.
Postgame now, the Sabes happy and starting to think about Friday. Garza, who came up mountainous in the second half, was pleased with the outcome.
“I think we had some nerves early on,” he said. “But we gradually settled down, especially at halftime, and we played better as the game wore on. We had to start playing our game, and for me, I had to see what they were giving me. I think when we spread them out some it gave me some more space, opened up the drive. We just knew the team we were, and we came on; hey, it’s the playoffs, we knew it was going to be tough.”
Olivarez suggested that toughness was a factor in the first-round encounter.
“They were playing physical and we had to get that, we fought back although we started slow,” he noted. “The pressure we put on them helped us, we spread them out in the second half. We had to punch them in the mouth, and that was key.”
Teammate Campos, who had a prominent hand in the punching with his rugged play, added that he and Lopez always work well together.
“We know what we have to do. And there’s zero animosity between us,” he smiled, and indeed, he and Lopez have shared the frontcourt chores all season. “My job is to get rebounds, play defense, and the team wins are not always about who scores the most points. This feels good, to get this win.”
And finally, Rodriguez, who is a Dub away from getting his team back into the Rare Air, the third round.
“This is the first time these guys have played together in a playoff situation, so a little nervousness was something we expected,” he explained, and sometimes people forget that this is basically a brand-new roster, tough act to follow, last season’s senior-soaked 30-win trip. This game was a huge test that the young contingent passed with flying Blue and Black colors. Blooded in battle.
“I thought those guys did their job, they played their roles well,” he added, in reference to Campos and Lopez. “We needed to push it tonight, and we did that, from the third into the fourth we really started to take control. We weathered the runs like we wanted and when we took a good lead there, they didn’t have enough time to come back, that’s what you want. The kids responded to adversity tonight but they all know: it gets tougher from here.”
FRIDAY NIGHT (INDOOR) LIGHTS
When the Sabes get together with Flour Bluff, Friday night up in Falfurrias, 6 p.m. tip, they will face a Hornet squad that has been three-deep the past two seasons, only to lose to McAllen once in the regional quarters. Traditionally, Flour Bluff has been a consistent force, with a .714 winning percentage the last five seasons. The Hornets have won a bi-district outing in eight of the past 11 seasons and went to the regional round twice, back to back in fact, 2013-14 and 2014-15. The next season, 2015-16, they were knocked off in area by Lalo Rios’ Vela art piece that went all the way to state that magical moon.
The Sabes will do their thing up the highway, as will the Vela girls, whose 47-31 victory over Vets Tuesday sent Coach Lottie Zarate’s team floating to dreamland. For the regional tourney, the Lady Sabes get a piece of Liberty Hill, after that Central Texas outfit got the best of Kerrville Tivy in the third stage to post win No. 30 for the season. In the other Sweet 16 tilt, it will be Wagner (27-4) versus CC Vets (29-9), a real meeting of heavyweights. Wagner allows just 40 ppg and has one of the state’s most exciting young players in speedy sophomore La Sneed. The Lady Thunderbirds defeated Cedar Park, SA Sam Houston, and Hays to get to SA, and the win over Hays, by 2, came against a menacing team that had been 36-3 coming in, but was 36-4 going out.
CC Vets is in the same district as Flour Bluff, whom Vela vanquished in area, and in non-district bested Valley entries Harlingen and San Benito, winning two of three from Flour Bluff. After beating the Valley postseason trifecta of Palmview, Memorial, and Rowe, the Lady Eagles will have a high hill against.
It will be a monumental Friday all around, as the North boys, fresh off their defeat of visiting Weslaco, will head to Calallen for a major challenge against a tall and physical group from San Antonio Harlan, the winner to get a shot at either SA Warren or underdog Valley school San Benito. Harlan may not have a great record (19-11) but was 10-6 in a killer league containing Brennan (28-7) and Warren (29-6), you know, the Supreme Court loop. Harlan dispatched an average Laredo Alexander crew in bi-district with a sizeable lineup featuring a 6-4, 6-2, and 6-1 kid, meaning the smaller Coogs will have their hands full. The Hawks did not make the playoffs last year but did so with a bang in the prior three seasons of their short existence as a program, making the Sweet 16 in 2020-21 after having advanced to the regional final in 2019-20. They beat Pioneer in the semis that season before being eliminated by athletic Warren in the final.
For the Cougars, the win over Weslaco marked the sixth time since 2010-11 that they have claimed a playoff win, the next last occasion coming in 2020-21, when they nipped Harlingen by 5 before dropping out against Laredo United. North also won in bi-district four times in five seasons starting in 2011-12, and the memorable season was obviously 2013-14, when the Coogs ruled the RGV roost for a trip to the Sweet 16 by topping Del Rio, P-SJ-A, and Alexander, losing eventually to a stacked Converse Judson crew in SA.
With trusty senior leadership, a 6-7 big man who has been tremendous down the stretch, and very good outside shooting, the Coogs and Coach Carlos Ramos now take their show on the road.