Halfway to crazy by now, Lottie Zarate was asked – in the aftermath of an Instant Classic Friday – an interesting question. Had she even been involved with a basketball team that started the fourth period with four starters tagged with fours fouls apiece?
“Nope, but there’s a first time for everything,” she cracked, moments after some able replacements had helped Vela end a 6-game losing streak and start the District 31-6A race with a doozy of a win.
Having led for most of the game, at times by as many as 9 against visiting North, the Lady Sabes kept racking up the fouls. And when the Lady Coogs, undaunted by any deficit, started knocking in their shots, things got real dicey, real fast. With the established stars trundling to the Vela bench one by one and her team losing its grip, Zarate had to hope for some rescue aid.
On cue, funky sophomore guard Kayleen Rios rose to the occasion, nailing 10 points in the second half including two key buckets down the stretch. Workhorse Teri Garza, on her way to a career-high 21 rebounds, kept the ball bouncing around the offensive end. And at the wire, as Vela was rising from a sudden 6-point deficit to pull through, 59-56, athletic sophomore Julia Cordon came up with an enormous steal to put it away.
“Bottom line, we had leadership out there, the girls who had four fouls did a great job making plays in the clutch, and Kayleen had to step in and she did well,” said Zarate, who finally got her full complement back after a series of injuries had sent the Lady Sabes into a tailspin; they came in with just a 5-11 overall record. “She had to grow up quick last year with Jaida out, and I needed her to do it again tonight. I told the girls that every game in district, with us back in the Edinburg mix, is going to be pressure like this. And they came through.”
Rios, in and out of the rotation this season but always up for a test, said that when the ball went to her in the late stages, she knew what she had to do.
“We were letting it get away and we had to calm down and just play,” said Rios, whose sub effort was shaky at first but superb from then on. “I wasn’t really nervous, I’ve been in a few situations like that before. We all just had to slow it down, play our game.”
North, after falling behind, came back very well in a fast-paced ball game that had a playoff atmosphere throughout. Without post Fernie Olvera, who missed the opener due to an illness in the family, the Lady Coogs had to rely on their quickness and determination. Sarah Reyes, the dogged inside role player, was awesome Friday with 16 points and 10 boards. Tilly Villarreal heated up to finish with 13 points and little by little North chipped away at the lead until it had pulled ahead, 56-50 with less than three minutes left.
But then Jaida Muhammad, Bianca Cortez, and Julissa Cuellar showed their moxie by helping the Lady Sabes back in. With Rios having held the fort, Muhammad returned from foul trouble to hit two free throws and a layup near the end; the basket tied it at 56 and then Rios put the home side up for good, capping a wild night and auguring in an equally wild district season to come.
“We’ve got Edinburg High Tuesday so we needed this one,” said Zarate, who got 23 combined points from Cuellar and Muhammad plus a team-high 15 from agile frontcourt veteran Cortez. “I told the girls they have to embrace the tough games, really enjoy being in them, it’s what basketball is all about!”
Even without the 6-foot Olvera, North held its own on the boards with just a minus-4 margin, but free throw shooting was a downer as the club missed eight freebies in the second half. The Lady Coogs started out by running the ball down and looking for quick shots but Vela pulled ahead as Muhammad scored eight in the first period as did Cortez. Garza had six in the second down low but with Villarreal hitting for six, the Lady Coogs had come to within a deuce by halftime. Reyes dominated the third period and it was still a 2-point game at the end of three, with North coming on.
“They hit some beautiful shots, you have to hand it to them,” Zarate said. “We knew they were gonna be on us all night, playing feisty defense. We just had to settle down and try and stay on the court, even with all the kids with four fouls. When we were down six, during the timeout, Jaida just told her teammates that there was a lot of minutes left to play.”
NOTES: EHS clobbered Econ Friday, racing out to a 31-5 lead after one period and cruising to an 80-22 victory. Mercedes Hernandez scored her jersey number with 22 points and the team knocked in seven bombs in preps for Vela Tuesday, at home.