EHS GIRLS TROUNCE HARLINGEN FOR BERTH IN HOOPS SWEET 16

ELSA – Halftime of the second emphatic yet anticlimactic blowout in a row for the Valley champs, and some little curly-headed kid in a Lady Bobcat shirt was putting in shot after shot. Little home boy, maybe 4, got on a roll and could not miss. With his team up 19 and soon to be cruising to the Sweet 16, he looked happy as a clam as he was killing it, swishing a bunch in a row.

And that was the metaphoric upshot Tuesday, as the Lady ‘Cats had just put 20 straight points on the board against Harlingen, firing in a cascade of three-pointers to turn a 1-point lead into much more. All of a sudden a 10-9 game became 30-9, with the Lady Cardinals missing everything, EHS not. At all.

The eventual 54-34 victory cemented the team’s status as Valley No. 1 and now it headed to San Antonio for the program’s fifth Sweet 16 appearance, and first for J.D. Salinas as head coach. The accomplishment in hindsight seems relatively simple as after an early bout of jitters Tuesday the Lady ‘Cats (33-8) dominated the action in every phase for a pleasing rubber match against a Harlingen five that just did not stand up under the pressure.

And pressure was at the heart of the matter. The Lady Cards (31-6) were going to bring it, everyone knew it.

“The day before that’s all we did, work against the press,” said bruising rebounder Leslie Martinez afterward. “We knew what they wanted to do, so we really worked on beating the pressure, staying cool, and finding the open girl.”

And that’s the way it went down, as the Lady ‘Cats had perhaps their greatest passing day, reversing the ball with speed and accuracy, penetrating to excellent bounce-pass assists, and generally using their quickness to great effect.

“They wanted a fast-paced game but we wanted to slow it down, play at our own pace,” said Martinez, the North ex who came up with nine boards and plunked in two of the team’s eight bombs. “It’s all about trust, that’s what passing is all about, finding the opening and trusting your teammates.”

Harlingen’s press was ineffective for many reasons, one being the superb passing of its foe. But as the Lady Cards suffered through a miserable shooting night, they just couldn’t get into the pressure D. Old School Rule No. 1: if you don’t score, it’s awfully hard to press.

Meanwhile, Edinburg had little trouble scoring, as senior Jenessah Santa Maria fired in two threes, A’nnika Saenz and Bri Martinez one, and Salinas’ club roared on ahead to the huge lead it never gave away.

It had begun with a packed house at Edcouch-Elsa High, and for a few minutes, the third-round jitters – with the stakes so high between the last two Valley teams alive – made the girls nervous. The court seemed 200 feet long and the baskets 15 feet high for a bit, until one of the two quintets mastered the moment.

It was EHS, which now rolled north to the summit, and a date with state-ranked San Antonio Clark. Though that team blasted the Lady ‘Cats in an early season tourney, the game was an eternity ago, with the club mired in injuries and uncertainty.

Santa Maria, who was brilliant with 15 points and 12 boards, remembers the time.

“Beginning of the season, if you had told me we would be going to the Sweet 16, I would have had some doubts,” she admitted. “I did have them actually, with all the injuries I was thinking this might be a long season. But God willing we got back together, got everyone healthy, and now we are here, winning this game and going forward.”

Santa Maria wept happily with older sister Jayla, and then bounced into the arms of her father, J.J., for a special family moment. She is going where her excellent sister never went, and is in the process of carving out her own name as one of the greatest ball players in city annals. It’s there, man.

Salinas embraced assistant George Olvera after the convincing triumph, and it was all smiles from the Red and Blue.

“We played with confidence again, we slowed it down and didn’t ever allow them to do what they wanted,” Salinas said, echoing the words of the rugged Martinez. “We also went zone tonight, first time in awhile, thinking that it would help us control the pace. Limit them to one shot, dictate the tempo, we knew what we wanted and we were able to do it. If you can control that against a pressing team, when you break the press, you can get easy shots at the other end.”

Junior Bri Sanchez had another terrific night, recording her second double-double in succession following a key performance in area against Pharr North. Everyone played well with Bri Martinez knocking in nine points, Saenz eight with six rebounds, and the Lady ‘Cats battling their way to a plus-14 edge on the glass.

Now it was time for the ultimate mountain, the region final four with a chance to do what no Edinburg team has done: win at the summit. It was going to be a tough task, but EHS was ready, having shown its greatness Tuesday by decimating a tremendous opponent in every aspect of the game, thereby establishing itself as one of the most successful units the fans have ever had the pleasure of watching play the game.