McALLEN — In the midst of a frenetic comeback effort, Weslaco High senior forward Aleksa Gallegos stood at the top of the 3-point arc on the elbow as she watched fellow Panthers player and senior guard Hayley Villalpando charge toward the rim. Villalpando drew the double team and kicked a pass out to Gallegos, who confidently drained a heat-check 3-pointer with a Hawks defender in her face.
A few hours later, Villalpando, Gallegos and the Panthers were trying to cement their lead once and for all. Villalpando poked a ball out of a Cardinals guard’s hands and came away with a steal. She fired ahead to a streaking Gallegos, who converted on a contested layup in transition.
Gallegos, Villalpando and the Panthers used a red-hot shooting day and a suffocating brand of physical defense to top both Harlingen South and Harlingen High, as Weslaco clinched the Border Brawl-Border Bash Tournament championship Saturday at McAllen High School and moved to 13-1 on the season.
“I’m just really proud of these kids,” Weslaco High head coach Griselda Fino said. “We’ve played a lot of ballgames in the course of 10 days. I knew their legs were dead and I tried to listen to them to figure out what we needed to do.”
The Panthers entered their afternoon semifinal matchup against the Hawks after running through the first two days of competition, but quickly found themselves in one of the tightest games of the tournament.
Harlingen South came out of the gate with guns blazing, scoring at will on drives through the paint and fantastic low-post play. Center Karla Reyes led the way tallying 18 points and nine rebounds.
Defensively, the Hawks’ man-to-man set collapsed into the paint on any attempt by the Panthers to drive into the lane, which helped them gain an early advantage.
“They definitely shook us up a little bit, but we knew we had to maintain our composure,” Gallegos said. “I know if we lost control, it wasn’t going to be a good game for us.”
“I think we knew it was going to be a very physical game, so we had to keep our mentality up whether we were winning or losing,” Villalpando said. “Throughout the game we knew we had a chance, but towards the end of the first quarter we knew this was going to be our game and we had to start switching gears at that point.”
Starting in the second quarter, Weslaco brought a new level of physicality into the contest and shut down the Hawks on the perimeter, limiting them to 20% shooting from behind the arc.
Offensively, the Panthers shifted their focus to operating around the perimeter, which helped spread out their offensive attack, promote good ball movement and create open shots from deep.
Gallegos and Villalpando, in particular, were deadly from the perimeter, combining to bury seven 3-pointers and helping the Panthers shoot at a 47% clip from behind the arc. The two finished the game with a combined 31 points.
“We’re two seniors so we knew this was a very big game. We don’t carry the team, but we know we have to step up for the younger girls and everyone,” Villalpando said. “We know how hard we’ve worked, so hitting shots like that in practice has to show up in games especially in games like this when it really counts.”
“When we hit big shots like those, it pumps us up,” Gallegos said. “We just want to keep going and pushing.”
That big momentum boost helped propel the Panthers past the Hawks 57-53 in a come-from-behind win to set up a championship game rematch against the Cardinals, whom they lost to in the semifinals in the Mid-Valley Classic last weekend in Weslaco.
From the opening tip, Weslaco looked like a determined team and led Harlingen wire-to-wire in a 58-45 victory. Fino and the Panthers were able to make some effective adjustments after their previous meeting which ultimately made the difference.
“We played them earlier at our tournament and we weren’t as successful. They beat us by four or five earlier in the season, and we tried to look at what they struggled with against us and what is it that we struggled with against them,” she said. “We tried to fine tune those little things. The kids listen and all the credit in the world to them of course because my coaches and I tried to come up with a plan, and it was a matter of them executing it.”
Weslaco’s defense brought a new level of physicality in the championship game, which led to a woeful shooting evening for Harlingen. The Panthers prodded away eight steals to set up their transition game, and limited the Cardinals to 29% shooting from the floor and 22% from 3-point land.
“I knew their legs were dead and I tried to listen to them to figure out what we needed to do,” Fino said. “But when it came down to the championship, I told them, ‘I know you’re tired, but Harlingen has played as many games as you have, and you just have to buckle down. It’s just a matter of 32 minutes and who wants it more.’”
Instead of hammering away from the perimeter, the Panthers allowed their smothering defense to set up their offense. The team moved the ball very effectively in transition and found ways to slash to the basket in the half-court game to shoot an incredibly efficient 49% from the field.
“We have some really good guards, so we can penetrate, move and go up for that layup,” Villalpando said. “Our connections has really gotten a lot better. It’s a lot of knowing that our teammate is going to be there, trusting them and giving them the ball when we can’t take care of it on our own.”
Guards Kristen Padilla and Melanie Carrion each scored 13 points against Harlingen, while Gallegos added 12 points and freshman center Morgan Peralez chipped in eight points and 15 rebounds. Ultimately, it was the Panthers’ depth that helped them overwhelm the Cardinals with shooting.
“I think we’re a very well-balanced team,” Gallegos said. “If one of us has an off night, another one of us can come in and take over.”
In addition to securing the Border Brawl-Border Bash title, Carrion earned tournament MVP honors while Villalpando and center Jazmin Saenz were voted onto the all-tournament team.
“I’m just really proud of my kids that we came out of this with a ‘W,’” Fino said. “I’m excited for this coming week; we have another tough game Tuesday against Harlingen South at their place, so now we’ve just got to regroup and find a way to get some rest between now and then and get back at it.”
Joining Saenz and Villalpando on the all-tournament squad were Harlingen South’s Reyes, Harlingen High’s Alexis Coto and San Antonio Clark’s Sydney Solitaire. San Antonio Clark dominated Harlingen South 60-32 in the third-place game, and Hidalgo dismantled Corpus Christi Moody 63-36 to capture the consolation bracket championship.