WESLACO — Facing a big early deficit, the Weslaco High Panthers walked back out onto the court trying to climb back into the contest.
Guards Melanie Carrion and Haley Villalpando closed in on the McAllen Memorial Mustangs’ player dribbling the ball up the court and encircled her in a trap. They wrested the ball away and fed it to Carrion for an easy transition layup.
On the ensuing inbound play, Aleksa Gallegos plucked the ball out of the air for an easy steal and sunk another layup. It was part of a 10-0 run for Weslaco to trim a double-digit lead with a ferocious, physical brand of defense.
Carrion, Gallegos and Villalpando’s critical roles in the team’s air-tight full-court press defense, and a strong shooting night, helped the Panthers overcome an early deficit to top McAllen Memorial 59-43 on Tuesday night at Weslaco High School. Weslaco improved to 7-1 on the year, while Memorial dropped to 3-3.
“That’s kind of what our bread and butter is, and it always has been our defense,” Weslaco High head coach Griselda Fino said. “We definitely had an off night offensively, but we relied on our defense to claw back into the game. I think they had an 11- or 12-point lead at some point, so we relied on that to get back in the game and take the lead and maintain the lead.”
The Mustangs jumped out to a quick 17-6 advantage during the first quarter thanks to the return of starting point guard Cori Talamantez, whose brilliant ball movement helped open up the floor in the early going.
“Early in the game we were doing well,” McAllen Memorial head coach Clarissa Arredondo said. “We just got our point guard back from volleyball and she was a sparkplug for us in the first half. My girls are just getting used to her playing with us again.”
Memorial dominated down low early and throughout the rest of the contest, crashing the glass hard and playing stingy defense in the paint. Center Iasia Goldman was the lynchpin of the team’s interior defense, as she notched a double-double with 10 blocks and 12 rebounds to go along with eight points.
“Goldman did a tenacious job for us down low. I told her if it wasn’t for her, they probably would have put 90 on us,” Arredondo said. “We’ve just got to work on her being a little more offensive minded.”
Weslaco kicked its comeback bid into gear with a big second quarter in which the team outscore Memorial 22-8 and retake the lead for good. The Panthers were dialed in from behind the arc during the second and used the uptempo pace from their full-court press to find their shooters in space on the perimeter, especially Carrion and Gallegos who combined for 26.
“We’ve got kids who can light it up and it’s not just one, it’s several of them. We kind of welcome the zone play and we welcome the man play because we’re also so physical. This is one of my better teams as far as being well-rounded,” Fino said. “It’s difficult to stop us when we can all be firing on all cylinders.”
The Panthers continued to press hard against the Mustangs for the remainder of the contest, which visibly frustrated the visiting McAllen squad. Still adjusting to the return of Talamantez at point guard and building chemistry, Memorial had a very difficult time holding onto the ball and breaking out of the press into transition.
“Cori had one practice, so she didn’t really know the press breaker that we had been going over. We were trying to call timeouts telling her where to go,” Arredondo said. “I think this next tournament should help us out and we should be OK.”
The Panthers rolled in the second half for two big reasons: their ability to get to the free-throw line and convert, and the breakout play of freshman center Morgan Peralez.
“We just came off of our tournament and in our last two games we missed a combined 36 free throws,” Fino said. “It’s something we stress to the kids. Those make or break you and unfortunately this past weekend it broke us, but we were a little more successful tonight.”
Peralez was a force down low in only her second game for Weslaco, especially given the fact she was blanketed by Memorial’s Goldman all night. She tallied a double-double ending the contest with 11 points and a team-high 16 rebounds, which gave the Panthers plenty of second-chance scoring opportunities.
“I think those second chance opportunities really, really paid off and the fact that my freshman battled in there with their big,” Fino said. “I was just so proud of her because she maintained her composure.”
Both McAllen Memorial and Weslaco High will return to the hardwood this weekend for the Border Bash Tournament running Thursday through Saturday in McAllen.