VELA REACHES SWEET 16 WITH THRILLER OVER LAREDO UNITED
ZAPATA – He had been there when the Original happened, as a lanky freshman post taking a bit part in the SaberCat run to the state final four in 2016. So it was somehow fitting that Noah Sekinger, now the grand old wise man of Vela hoops, should make the vital plays to send the program to the regional tournament for the first time since then.
With a super tense game at its apex, his team down 1 inside the final minute here Tuesday, Sekinger leapt like a gazelle onto a lazy Laredo United pass, steaming the other way for a layup-and-one. The cool veteran sank the free toss and then, in the waning seconds he raced out from the paint to contest a last-second three-ball from the deadly Longhorns. It missed, and the Sabes were on to San Antonio.
The bang-bang performance at the wire clinched a 51-49 victory for the SaberCats (28-10) after a real knock-down, drag-out battle with the 31-5 United squad that came in as the favorite. It sent the club on to the Sweet 16 in San Antonio later in the week, to play Cibolo Steele. The magic illustrated the excellence of the 6-5 Sekinger, but also the mantra of this season’s basketball journey. He had other significant moments.
Vela trailed 39-35 in the third quarter when Sekinger, harassed by three hornet-like United defenders on the blocks, scrapped a pass to junior Kaleb Coronado, who calmly knocked down a 3. In a nutshell, that’s Vela in 2018-19. Do whatever, whenever. Together.
“We knew they were going to do that, come at me in waves,” said the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, who ended with 11 points and 12 rebounds despite constant double- and triple-teams. “I just had to find ways to impact the game in other areas, passing, help defense, whatever the situation called for. I always trust my teammates to step up.”
True dat, one by one, the Sabes stepped up, with Austin Garza scoring six points in the second and taking three charges. Coronado, who led the way with 14 points and three of the team’s six bombs, connected twice in the third as Vela tried to keep the Longhorns – who had beaten the Sabes twice during non-district – from pulling away.
And finally, little whirlwind Nate Gomez, who threw in 11 points Tuesday and was the fulcrum of the comeback as senior Josh Diaz sat out much of the second half with foul issues. Gomez fired in a pair of treys in the fourth, when Vela rallied from a 46-38 deficit to outscore United 13-3 to the tape. The first came on a feed from Sekinger early in the third, cutting the lead to 4, and the second came with 2:40 to go, making it a 1-point United bulge. Diaz, so important to the drill this season knew, as did Sekinger, that the underclassmen had the goods.
“I try to control myself out there but sometimes I just get caught up in the excitement of the game,” said Diaz, who had three fouls in the first half and played just a few minutes after that. “But I trust my guys, they will come through. I have seen it before, Nate coming in and producing, and Kaleb, well, he is playing with real confidence now, the way we always knew he would when it counted. We play together, and we believe in each other.”
Coach Lucio Rodriguez, in his first rodeo as head honcho, pulled all the right strings against a formidable opponent that had been 19-2 against Valley teams in the playoffs the past 10 years. As a player back at EHS, Rodriguez had seen his senior season of 2005-06 come to a crash against United in an excruciating postseason overtime loss. Now, 13 years down the road, he was moving on with a victory over the western rival.
“But it’s about them, the kids,” he admitted in the raucous postgame celebration, as he watched the Sabes go nuts with joy. “Look at them … just look! That’s what it’s all about, seeing them get a chance to do that, it really is what I’m in this for. They never gave up, even when we were down 8, they stayed cool and did what they had to do. Wow, this is all new to me, man, and it feels really good!”
ONE FOR THE AGES
A wild ride so far, but it didn’t start out so wonderfully, as Vela stumbled to five losses in six non-league tries against a Laredo contingent that is always aggressive, hot-shooting, and relentless, this year more than ever. But the Sabes worked their way into shape under a new coach, seeking to better last season’s first-round exit against Rivera. They went 10-2 in district and even having to settle for a co-title with Econ after a finale loss did not stem the tide that was building.
After having beaten Hanna and United South in the postseason to get at United, it was time for a supreme effort.
The club was sharp early Tuesday, getting to the rim and making shots, amassing a 9-4 lead which melted to 13-12 after one, as United started to bang away from outside. It was apparent that the ‘Horns would give ample help inside against Sekinger, and he had just three points at the half, but with eight boards. United climbed into a 3-point second-period advantage before Gomez hit a bomb with the assist from junior Bobby Espericueta, Coronado adding a free throw for a 28-26 SaberCat lead at the break.
Gomez, whose 17-point outburst against Weslaco back on Jan. 17 had provided a key 53-52 win, is all energy out there, and he again jumpstarted the attack in style.
“Like Weslaco, yes, but this was a way bigger game,” he suggested, and we agree. “We needed a little something to keep this season going.”
Gomez noted that when the Sabes were humbled by United twice – by 10 in November and by 36 in late December – they were a different group.
“Yeah, really, that was before this, we were not a team yet, that was before we came together,” said the hard-working senior. “Before we got the chemistry right, before all the Team Nights, before all that. So we knew that we could beat them, we just had to do it.”
Sekinger scored inside to start the third, but from there it was all United, as the ‘Horns rallied with an 18-10 showing in the period. When their burly post tossed one in to begin the final stanza, it was 46-38 and things were looking iffy.
But Garza canned a free throw and Gomez hit the aforementioned 3 from Sekinger. Sekinger barreled in for a three-point play at the rack to make it 46-45, United and when the Longhorns extended to 49-45, it was time for Gomez and Sekinger to ring the final, telling bells. Which they did, right on cue.
After the last three-point play from their trusty senior star, the Sabes inserted agile 6-6 senior Kobe Gipson for the final possession. United had the ball with five seconds left, inbounding in the frontcourt, and Gipson forced the ‘Horns into much disarray with his wing span and leaping ability. When United got the ball in, Sekinger finished the deal by hustling out to alter the final shot, and from there, the lovely and chaotic celebration, featuring Coach Rodriguez cutting part of the memorable net with his infant son in one hand, scissors in the other. Easy, Sarah.
For Coronado, the result was particularly sweet. A few years back, the sharpshooter had been inadvertently involved in an eligibility situation that led to Vela being taken out of the 2017 playoffs before even playing a game. No one ever really blamed the affable athlete, but nonetheless, to be able to have a sure hand in such a thrilling success … it had to be fulfilling.
“I feel like I have redeemed myself,” he stated after the game. “I think the main thing is, you have to live in the moment. I felt so bad for what happened back then, but I have just tried to play my best, step up when it was time, and hit shots and make plays. None of us ever got down tonight, we just figured, it’s gonna happen. Right now we just want to enjoy the moment, while it lasts!”