She was always a precocious junior high kid, dreaming and dribbling all the time, perfecting her moves, and waiting impatiently for the time to shine. Now, as the fulcrum of a team fighting for the playoffs, Kayleen Rios is coming of age.
The junior point guard enjoyed perhaps her greatest game, Tuesday at home, leading Vela to an emphatic 61-45 triumph over North, scoring 21 points and running the point like a true veteran, which she now is. Winding her way through a formidable Lady Coog defense with confidence and poise, Rios was the spark to a victory the Lady SaberCats had to have to begin the second round of District 31-6A play.
Rios, at her best in the fourth period with 11 markers, including six of six from the free throw line, enabled her squad to become 4-4 in district, tied with North for third in the loop. She scored on drives and jumpers and facilitated a big night for senior post Bianca Cortez (18 points, 12 in the third when Vela took command).
It’s no secret that Vela has needed Rios to step up on the offensive end, because besides Cortez (14 ppg), the attack options are limited.
“I always try to get everyone involved, running the point, but I have had to shoot more this year,” said the amiable junior, who has improved each season under the tutelage of Coach Lottie Zarate, a former standout at the position for EHS back in the day. “I look for teammates naturally but now I know that the team feeds off me somewhat, so I have to be active in looking to score.”
Vela, winner of three straight heading into a showdown with league leader EHS Friday, went from a 1-point edge at the end of a ragged/sluggish first half to an 8-point bulge after three. Rios knocked in a three and a pair of charity tosses and found Cortez inside consistently in the stanza. Her coach was pleased with the way things went Tuesday.
“Kayleen knows she has to be a scoring threat as well as run the offense,” Zarate said. “She needs to look for that early, not wait until later; she has the skills, she can hit the three and see the floor very well. Kayleen is a very important part of what we are trying to do out there.”
North was unable to get into any sort of consistent stretch of play, as the long-range prowess it had showed in beating Vela during round one never materialized in the rematch. That was partly due to injury as senior Tilly Villarreal is out for the year. But it was also partly because Vela’s defense was exceedingly stiff.
“Team effort tonight,” said Zarate, who employed the agile and rangy Cortez on midcourt traps in the first half and turned hard-nosed junior Julia Cordon loose in the role on the second. “Defensively, we were aggressive, we did what we had to do. We wanted to get a hand in their face and contest every pass, every shot.”
The Lady Sabes got a boost on D with the return of rugged sophomore Kameryn Casares, back from injury, and at the other end of the floor, senior Lorena Carrillo pumped in a dozen points.
The Lady Coogs (4-4) suffered another setback when defensive demon Bri Martinez left the floor after a collision in the second half. Sister Lesley Martinez led the charge Tuesday with 21 points, scoring with drives to the basket and showing that she is one of the best in the district at using the backboard. No other North girl managed more than six points.