He was flat exhausted toward the end, cramping and hurting on the side as the minutes ticked down Friday night. After leaving the game with half a period left, Josh Diaz looked on as his Vela teammates finished what he’d had a big hand in engineering: a huge 55-42 victory on the road to carve out a tie for first place in District 31-6A.
The junior guard picked a terrific time to regain his excellence. After a mini-slump during district play (4.0 average in six outings), he was superb against EHS, scoring 13 points, grabbing six boards, and running the club out front with quickness, jitterbug crossover moves, and accurate, stylish passes.
Diaz and the gang were able to do something that six other teams had failed to do, which was outplay the Bobcats, and now, at the halfway mark, those two rivals are tied at the apex, with city mates North and Econ just a step behind at 5-2.
“I just had to keep working, Coach [David] Keith and Lucio [Rodriguez, assistant coach], they told me to fight through some of this, and it would happen,” said Diaz, whose flair with the basketball stood out, among other attributes for the resurgent SaberCats, now grooving after a sub-.500 non-district trial. “I just came and did what I can do, dribble and drive, find the open man, and it felt really good to be winning this game.”
With Diaz in his smooth flow, controlling tempo and seeing the floor, all it took for Vela was some work from other guys, and they did it. Junior Noah Sekinger, battling inside with EHS senior Jesus Cantu, managed a hard-won double-double and found other ways to be effective. He made some killer passes out of the double team and held Cantu to just nine points.
“Hey, any way I can do things to help, I do,” said Sekinger, who came in averaging around 15 ppg, nine rebounds and had topped 20 points three times in district. “I was getting fouled like crazy inside, the refs were letting it go, so I had to find other aspects. Scoring doesn’t really matter, I mean, 10, 8, whatever it takes to get us the win.”
It was some kind of awesome week for Vela, which had defeated North on Tuesday. Then and Friday, sophomore Bobby Espericueta was cranking it. Coach David Keith says that the sharpshooting newcomer will not come off the floor, because of how effective he is consistently. Against EHS he scored 11 and registered a blocked shot on Bobcat scoring leader Antoine Woodard early on.
Then there was the timely toil from subs Nate Gomez and Matt Arteaga, who pitched in three bombs between them and gave the team an energy lift off the bench in the second half.
Vela just played better than the Bobcats Friday, period. Woodard went for 20 but other than that, the offensive threat was nullified by a SaberCat defense that jumped out hard, bothered the guards with a 1-3-1 trap, and would not allow the Bobcats to get the ball inside to Cantu. An extremely impressive effort all around for a squad that some people were counting out, back at the turn of the year.
EHS led 13-10 after one but the visitor assumed a 2-point advantage at the break as Espericueta knocked in a pair of treys, Trey Chavana another. For the night, the Sabes poured in 10 from behind the arc and connected on nine of 10 free throws. They sank four bombs in the third and Sekinger churned to four successful free throws good for a 41-32 lead heading into the final stanza. Gomez and Arteaga had each nailed it from outside in the late stages of the third, as every move the Sabes made paid off.
EHS meanwhile seemed to lose some composure for the first time in quite a while, and in the second half Woodard leapt for 13 points, the rest of the roster just six total. Vela was up 10 when Diaz crumpled to the court in agony, and Sekinger too went to the bench to massage calves and suck down some water. After the mammoth effort those kids pulled off Friday, it was understandable: they had given all they had, and it was enough to salt away a real signature win.