The SaberCats faced down another challenge Tuesday night, beating Econ soundly, though the final count of 79-64 did not reflect the domination that was in effect most of the night. Their 27th win of the season came with four players in double figures – led by senior Alec de la Cruz with 22 points – and eight three-point makes. It came despite a rally from the Jags that had the Orange down just four after a period, and now with scant time remaining in the regular season, Vela is turning its attention to the playoffs.
Sure, they still had to finish the fight for the District 31-6A title, a task achieved with a victory over North on the road Friday. An EHS loss Tuesday to Pharr North meant that the Sabes were able to wrap up the crown Friday, which they did. But the Valley’s No. 1 outfit was already all about the postseason last week.
“We want to go to San Antonio again, get that far at least,” said senior guard Chris Ochoa, whose pesky defense and three long balls Tuesday were part of the team’s 26th positive result in a row. “It’s 6A so we know it’s going to be harder, but we’re ready for it.”
If the Sabes are going to approach a duplication of last year’s dream season, which netted 35 wins and a trip to the Class 5A state tourney, defensive efforts will have to be in the mix.
Ochoa and backcourt mate Ryan Garza, along with the long-armed de la Cruz, knew coming in to Tuesday that they had to get to Econ sophomore Angel Salinas, the team’s triggerman and leading scorer. And they did.
“We wanted to pick him up as early as possible and make him give it up, because he likes to play with the ball in his hands,” said Ochoa, who has excellent quickness and leaping ability that allow him to play bigger than his 5-8 stature.
Though Salinas was hot early with three first-period hoops, gradually Vela started to get into its defensive groove, taking turnovers and sinking layups in transition. With de la Cruz making a pair of steals and also a couple of sweet assists, the team carved out an 11-point bulge at the half and extended to 25 midway through the third.
Springy junior Saul Alanis keyed the Jags (6-6) with 14 points, 10 in the first half, and Coach Carlos Ramos got a gutty performance from sophomore Johnathan Barrientos (team-high 15, the Jags hit nine bombs, Barrientos four) but too often the Jags were playing rushed, from behind.
Vela meanwhile had an active post in sophomore Noah Sekinger (10 points, presented well on the blocks and ran the court too) and some solid efforts from the second unit, namely crafty senior Jose Trigo.
THE REST OF THE STORY
After the loss to the Raiders, EHS was knocked from contention for the title, turning sights on preserving the second seed from 31-6A. A drop to third-place would net the ’Cats a much tougher bi-district date, with either Weslaco or Los Fresnos, the top two outfits from 32-6A. The ‘Cats were nipped by Econ, 60-56 Friday, top fall to 10-3.
North will finish out of the race for 2016-17 but the Coogs have talent coming back for next season. Senior Christian Espinoza, who has averaged a double-double this season, had a season-high 20 points Tuesday as the Coogs won for the third time in five starts, 76-54 over P-SJ-A. Friday they lost to Vela by 12.
Econ, struggling to get into the Dance now after a fine non-district showing, faced the Bobcats Friday with a lot on the line. The Orange got it done, advancing to 7-6 and can wrap up a playoff spot Tuesday against Memorial.
The playoff scramble took on a new look with the news late last week of the potential forfeiture of a number of games by Vela. Tuesday was the day the District Committee was to make a ruling on a possibly ineligible player, and suffice to say that the entire Valley hoops scene was holding its breath.