It was a sign of respect, to be sure, and it was also a real solid strategy. Juan Vazquez knew what he’d been instructed to do, and so set about the arduous task with steely resolve.
The junior North forward was assigned to get up close and personal with 6-foot-3 EHS star Antoine Woodard Tuesday. His defensive chores against the high-flying leading scorer would end up being part of the difference in North’s nail-chewing 1-point victory over the Bobcats. He followed Woodard here and he followed Woodard there, hands up and body as close to the super Bobcat as the rules would allow.
At the end of the night, after the 6-foot Vazquez, with help from several rotating teammates, had managed to hold Woodard to 13 points – and make the plays of the day in the clutch. With the Coogs holding a 1-point edge he made a near-strip under his own basket to thwart a shot attempt; after the ‘Cats regained possession with the clock running down, Vazquez again made a mark, combining with sophomore Zay Rangel to force an out-of-bounds call off an EHS player.
Still, as smart as the plan was for North, Woodard is so good that he almost came down and won the game. The Coogs missed a free throw and the junior flew back up court, racing into range and firing a pass to an open teammate in the corner. The shot went awry, and North had prevailed, 53-52, winning for the fourth game in a row and passing EHS (7-3 with the debit) for second in the league at 8-2.
“My assignment was to get on Antoine, try and not let him have a big game,” said Vazquez, who has become a steady contributor for the surging Coogs. “We are fighting to win a district title so I just tried to do my best, he is a great player. At the end of the night it’s all in the game, I don’t think there are any hard feelings.”
It was a real barnburner, as it has been so many times in the past. North came out raging from downtown, nailing five treys in the first half but the ‘Cats, who have hit a rough patch after a 6-0 start, did not fold.
Instead they tried to find ways to get the ball inside to senior post Jesus Cantu, who can score in bunches at times but at others is content to rebound and defend. He ended with 15 points including a dominant period in the second half. But the Coogs, playing guard-heavy basketball, had what it took to get over.
Even when EHS surged ahead, 41-36 thanks to a tremendous burst from the athletic Woodard near the end of the third period, Coach Rudy Garcia’s squad had the poise to handle it. Vazquez again made his presence felt at the horn, getting fouled on a three-point attempt and hitting all three free throws to narrow the gap to 2 entering the telltale stanza.
“We never gave up, even when we got down,” Garcia said. “We played hard defense, and we came out shooting it well. Edinburg picked up the D on us after the half, but we have been in a lot of close games this year and we are learning how to win them now.”
As for the defensive strategy that turned Vazquez into a pesky pest, Garcia was frank.
“He had to play in-your-face D on Antoine, because the kid is so good,” he explained. “We wanted to make him uncomfortable, at least, try and get him out of his rhythm, that was the deal there.”
North got key moments from a number of kids, including senior Felix Aleman, who knocked in four bombs and grabbed a couple of offensive boards. Ricky Alaniz ended with 10 points and made a difficult off-balance leaner for a 48-47 lead midway through the fourth. This after Rangel had erupted for seven straight points, hitting the glass and skying for jumpers. EHS’ Cantu re-took the lead at 50-49 on a follow inside, but then North got a drive from Andrew Nunez to go up again.
This is the way it was Tuesday, bang-bang action with the two schools brawling like old friends and rivals, which of course we know they are. It brought back memories of Lalo Rios’ 42-point detonation against North back in the 1990s, and also of the game-winning 55-footer made by ‘Cat Rolando Rocha a few years back. That kind of intensity in the gym.
With two minutes left, Aleman twisted to the goal for an impossible dipsy-doo layup, putting the Coogs ahead, 53-51. Damian Garcia, who scored 13 for the ‘Cats, made one of two at the line, Rangel snaring the offensive board at 0:52.
Later, North turned it over but Vazquez then made his defensive stand. Perhaps unwisely the Coogs launched a shot up 1, missing inside 20 seconds, but Ben Vela was there for the offensive carom. Seconds down the pike the visitors clanked the free toss and there went Woodard, grey-hounding all the way down. Fitting that a taut, frenetic fight should come down to a last shot, as this one did.