In the midst of a brutal stretch of schedule against top teams, the Lady SaberCats are learning what they need to improve on if they want to be a championship contender.

Having lost a reasonably close battle to vaunted SA Johnson in the Border Brawl the prior weekend, Vela welcomed Valley power Weslaco to town Tuesday, and the 50-42 defeat was a primer on what to do, and what not to do.

During a physical first half The Lady Sabes got the Pantherettes into early foul trouble, but missed seven of 11 free throws in the half. And they saw two starters sent to the bench with whistle woes, including junior inside presence Bianca Cortez.

Nonetheless, when sophomore Julia Cordon knocked down an open three late in the second period, it was just a 9-point game at the break. To that stage, Weslaco had showed superior passing and movement, and was making its high-percentage shots.

The Lady Sabes fell behind by as many as 13 in the second half but rallied back to within eight late due to some great defense from Julissa Cuellar and Jaida Muhammad. But in the end, Vela could not fill the basket near enough to have a chance to win.

“You look at the shot chart and wow, we missed a lot of inside shots, pretty close in,” said Coach Lottie Zarate, in her fifth season with the program. “We have to make more shots, that’s all there is to it. And when we got them in the double bonus early, we just didn’t make enough of our free throws, and that hurt.”

The well skilled Weslaco bunch was smoother in the set offense, making skip passes and dishes off penetration to solid effect. Meanwhile, Vela did not execute as well and kept in the fray with sheer hustle and determination. Senior Cynthia Hernandez pulled down six boards and took a pair of charges while spindly senior post Laura Lira, forced into extended minutes due to Cortez’ foul woes, also collected six rebounds. Muhammad, who finished with 12 points, keyed the defensive charge along with the battling Cuellar, who hauled down seven rebounds and tossed in nine points.

Cuellar scored on a putback and then helped Muhammad make a steal leading to a layup from the latter player, making it an 8-point game with 3:15 to go. But the Lady Sabes rushed it from there and the combination of turnovers and poor shot selection stymied the comeback.

Still, there were positive signs, as the team played without two rotation members and got contributions from role players and new faces.

“We knew they were going to try and execute, make the passes they made, and we just had to be prepared for that,” said Zarate, whose team then faced a challenge against Brownsville Vets Saturday. “We just have to finish, score inside, convert free throws. The girls have accepted every challenge, and yes, we are playing some tough teams because it will get us better. Defense helped us at times tonight, but we did not make our shots, and against a team like Weslaco, that’s not going to get it done.”

Brownsville Vets prepped for the Saturday match with Vela by beating Harlingen Tuesday, has also defeated EHS this season, and came into the weekend showdown with a 9-3 record.

The Lady Sabes gave a much better overall effort Saturday but nonetheless dropped to 4-5 after leading most of the way, only to lose at the end, 43-41. Cortez paced the team with 17 points against the Lady Chargers. Vela led by 12 at one point before Vets whittled the margin down; the home side threw in a rebound basket at 0:02 to take the W.