A team always has a game plan heading into each showdown, partly technical and partly emotional. The Lady SaberCats, facing the Valley’s No. 1 club Friday night, had stressed sharp passes, pressure defense, and increased intensity in the days leading up to the fight with Edinburg High.
And they executed each of these items well enough to pull the upset, leading from almost the opening tap to complete a scintillating 46-44 victory that made them 7-2 in District 31-6A, but more importantly handed the Lady Bobcats their first blemish in league play.
Charging out to an early lead – as they did last time these two met back on Dec. 20 – this time the Lady Sabes kept their cool when things got rough. Even with senior leader Jaida Muhammad on the bench for the last 3:37 due to having fouled out, Vela made the plays. The passes were crisp throughout, the defense forced the Lady Bobcats out of their groove from the onset, and as the evening unfolded before an overflow and madcap home crowd, it became apparent that the intensity was ample for the Blue and Black.
“The last few games we might not have all been into it, we were kind of sleeping out there,” said Muhammad, who had a tremendous defensive night on EHS star Jayla Santa Maria despite fouling out on a very disputed charge call that sent her to the pine before her time. “But tonight, it was such an emotional game, and everyone that stepped out on the court was into it. We wanted this game so badly!”
Junior Bianca Cortez was outstanding Friday with 20 points and 13 rebounds, and afterward she echoed the comments of Muhammad.
“We just came out with the fire in our belly, and we kept it the whole game,” said Cortez, who was the beneficiary of several fine assists from sophomore Kayleen Rios, one of the stars of the night. “We let it slip a little in the fourth quarter but for the most part we played with real fire, and it showed.”
Rios was instrumental in the affair, as she knocked down a rainbow three-pointer in the first period to help the home girls to a 15-8 advantage after one. Using the penetration and bounce pass, she found the active Cortez all night, breaking down the D and getting good looks for teammates. Rios finished with seven assists.
EHS came into the night allowing just 36 points per game in district, and its defense was sound enough Friday. But an offense that had rolled to 63 ppg in eight straight wins did not show up for the showdown, and part of the credit has to go to Vela. Julissa Cuellar was pesky as always, while Muhammad forced umpteen turnovers with her fast hands and hustle.
The Lady ‘Cats, who beat Vela by 9 in the first matchup, came into the rematch with 37 district 3’s, but failed to connect on a single bomb. Santa Maria and Mercedes Hernandez scored 16 each but neither was at the top of her game; none of the other EHS kids had much input, though freshman post Bri Sanchez grabbed six rebounds.
Still, EHS made a comeback. It cut what had once been a 12-point deficit in the third to 2 late in the night, as Santa Maria rallied for seven in the last period. But EHS missed an open layup down the stretch and then misfired on a pair of free throws with four seconds left, taking the loss for the first time since Dec. 3, in a tourney game versus Antonian.
“We controlled the game, we took care of the ball, and most importantly, we hustled,” explained Muhammad, who finished with seven steals. “I have to admit, it ripped my heart out when I fouled out. There were some real ticky tack fouls called tonight. I wanted to be on the floor when we beat them, but that’s alright; our team showed what it’s all about!”
Vela pushed its season record to 15-14 and is peaking at the right time. Now just one notch behind the Lady Bobcats, Lottie Zarate’s crew looked forward to games this week against P-SJ-A Southwest Tuesday and then at P-SJ-A Memorial Friday. Memorial has been the surprise team of the league this year with twin wins over Pharr North to its credit so far. The Lady Wolverines routed Econ by 24 Friday to rise to 7-2, tied with Vela, making this week’s clash a vital one as the stretch run nears. Memorial must contend with a peeved EHS group, however, three days before taking on Vela.