It was a measuring stick afternoon for the final of the annual Craig Smith Tournament Saturday, with the favored Sabes seeking to continue their dominance and the upstart Jags looking for a shot at some props and respect.
Both schools should consider the title match a success of sorts, as Vela indeed capped the crown with a 74-63 victory, showing that even when it is not clicking in all cylinders, this impressive team will find ways to win. The Sabes pounded the offensive boards, took Econ out of its sets with the press and halfcourt defense, and on a semi-off day still managed to connect on eight three-point shots.
The Jags, on the other hand, endured the onslaught well enough, cutting what was once a 19-point deficit to the final margin of 11. Along the way, Coach Carlos Ramos’ promising squad took some licks, but those lumps on the head will pay off down the line. Now they know what it’s like to be in against a champion and the Jags did better than anyone else at the Smith when it came to hanging with Vela.
SaberCat senor Ryan Garza, who copped MVP honors with a 20-point performance in the final, knew that the Sabes were in for a fight, after the Jags had beaten them in a fall league game some months back.
“This was a district game, really, way early,” said the star guard who keyed the defensive charge that jumbled so many Econ possessions. “This was not our best today, for whatever reason, maybe we were a bit tired after playing twice yesterday. But we did what we had to do, when our shots weren’t falling, we got to the boards.”
Garza noted that Coach Lalo Rios has always told the kids: when you’re not playing your best, you have to come up with other effective maneuvers.
“Taking a charge, boxing out, rebounding, there are all kinds of ways to get it done,” said Garza, headed to St. Edward’s next season. “If we cannot press because we miss some shots, we just pick them up in the halfcourt, for 32 minutes today we just found a way to win.”
Up by 2 early on, Vela went on a patented run, scoring 12 in a row to lead 21-7 late in the first. But Econ’s athletic, lengthy crew did not buckle as Miguel Gonzalez (15 points) and Angel Salinas (18) hung in and brought their team back. Though each of the Jag leaders found the going tough against one of the Valley’s top teams, they were determined to show what they could do.
The Sabes for excellent contributions from sophomores Noah Sekinger (12 boards, five blocks) and Josh Diaz (two threes in the second period) and asserted themselves every time they were challenged. Sekinger scored 11 in the final and Carlos Azubell, the gutty senior, tossed in 13 and led the charge to the glass.
Vela extended to a 19-point advantage in the third but the Orange refused to die, working hard and trying to come back. In the end, Ramos’ club showed that it will be a contender in the 31-6A race.
“We ate a lot of humble pie last year and this season we are going to be feeding off it,” said the second-year coach during the tournament. “We want to see what we can do against some of the best teams. The only thing we are really missing right now is experience, so this tournament for us is all about getting into some tough games and seeing how we can do.”
The Sabes reached the final with a 90-36 demolition of Rivera Friday night, after having pulverized San Benito, 97-42. They knocked in 12 threes against the Greyhounds and then 13 versus the Raiders, including eight in a whopping 38-point first period blitz. Garza and Alec de la Cruz combined for 25 points in the opening quarter for an easy blowout win. The Jags meanwhile, defeated Palmview in an impressive semi-final, 60-39, after having beaten Lopez and Harlingen (50-44) to reach that stage.
COUGARS IN THE SMITH
For a while there it looked like a North-Econ matchup in the semis as the Jags outlasted Harlingen by 6 before the Coogs took on Palmview. But despite the homecourt advantage, North could not handle the Lobos, falling 62-52 to drop out of the hunt for the title.
The preseason is about as important as can be for Coach Rudy Garcia’s team, which seeks to replace both graduation and transfer losses and gird for its annual try at the playoffs. Beyond seniors Cristian Espinoza and Alex Bocanegra, back from last year’s club, there are a bunch of new faces wearing blue and gold.
One belongs to sophomore Abraham Nunez, who knocked in 16 points in the Palmview contest and was good on three bombs. He keyed a late second-period rush that saw the home side come from 11 down to tie it at the half 30-30. Espinoza finished with 15 points while freshman Izaiah Rangel was excellent on the boards, showing leaping ability, timing, and tenacity to corral six rebounds in less than 20 minutes of action.
North struggled to contain the twin bigs of the Lobos, and when Palmview canned no fewer than five treys in the third period, the die was cast.
Garcia’s crew had stormed to 90 points in the Smith opener blowing out Athlos Academy of Brownsville. After the Palmview result the Coogs went down the bracket to take on Harlingen Saturday morning, losing 59-44.
CATS SURPRISED FRIDAY
EHS started well enough at the tourney, slipping past Pioneer, 65-59, but then was knocked from the running against a Rivera team it had manhandled earlier in the week. The Raiders came away with a 75-70 victory Friday despite 16 points from senior Mikey Trevino (four bombs) and 43 combined points from underclassmen Jesus Cantu and Antoine Woodard. In their final outing, the ‘Cats dropped to 8-3 with a 4-point loss to San Benito.