PHARR — With PSJA North gaining momentum and closing the gap, McAllen Memorial’s Valeria Garcia knew she had to make something happen.
The Mustangs had quickly gotten themselves into foul trouble and were trying desperately to fend off the hard-charging Raiders down the stretch run. That’s when Garcia took over.
The Mustangs’ senior forward slashed her way through the opposing defense time and time again, milking the clock and providing a counterpunch to every blow the Raiders delivered, as she and junior point guard Cori Talamantez lifted McAllen Memorial over PSJA North 38-32 in a hard-fought, defensive battle to remain undefeated in district play Tuesday night at PSJA North High School.
“PSJA (North) is our next top competitor in the district, so my mentality throughout the entire game was ‘No matter what happens tonight, I need to win. I need to win for my teammates and that district title,’” Garcia said. “That’s really what drove me today just knowing that we’re fighting for that district title.”
Memorial topped North 54-44 in overtime in the previous meeting between the two, and they picked up where they left off. From the opening tip, the grudge match carried the weight and intensity of a playoff clash with both sides jockeying for the poll position in a highly competitive District 30-6A.
“To us it did (mean more),” PSJA North head coach Randy Bocanegra said. “We worked really hard after that first loss to be here, to give ourselves a chance, to beat them here at our place. We wanted it.”
“I think PSJA North is one of the toughest teams in our district,” McAllen Memorial head coach Clarisse Arredondo said. “I know the first time we played them, both of us were not at our full potential. But it was a hard-fought battle today; it was an exciting game.”
From the start, the Mustangs and Raiders were locked in a heated, defensive slugfest.
Both sides struggled to generate offense throughout a first quarter defined by physical play. Every shot was met with contact at the rim, and the officials allowed the two district rivals to play through it all.
Memorial came out of the gate with a ferocious full-court press in an effort to duplicate its success from their last tilt against PSJA North. The Raiders were able to break through the Mustangs’ full-court set and were able to get to the rim with their pick-and-roll offense.
“Their press didn’t hurt us as much as it did the first time,” Bocanegra said. “I think we managed it better, and then we did a good job coming off our screen and rolls and getting to the basket.”
That’s when Garcia and Talamantez, however, started to make their presence felt on the defensive end of the floor. The senior forward and junior point guard were constantly in the opposing ballhandlers’ jerseys, which helped open the Mustangs offense with the fast break.
“Sometimes our shots don’t always fall and sometimes we don’t always finish our layups, but no matter what happens our defense is always there,” Garcia said. “All of our players play with heart and hustle, so it’s really effective when you get that steal and block and everyone gets fired up and it leads to scoring points in transition.”
Memorial carried a 17-13 edge into the half, and the Mustangs and Raiders combined for 18 steals in the first 16 minutes of play.
McAllen Memorial upped the defensive intensity again coming out of the break when the team returned to its press and sought to eliminate PSJA North’s outside shooting game. Ultimately, the Mustangs limited the Raiders’ shooters to a 0-for-15 night from behind the arc.
“They didn’t get any 3-pointers off and PSJA North is a 3-point shooting team, so kudos to my kids,” Arredondo said. “I think they really got after it defensively.”
The Raiders mounted a late charge after getting the Mustangs in quick foul trouble and clawed to within three points of taking the lead, but couldn’t take advantage from the free-throw line.
“We wanted to keep attacking the basket. That’s what we mentioned to the girls, ‘Hey, we’re in the bonus. Go to the basket, go to the basket.’ We got there, we just didn’t finish. But that’s the way the ball bounces.”
Center Trinity Bane led the way offensively for PSJA North with 14 points and nine rebounds, while forward Emma Lucio added 10 points. Meanwhile, Talamantez tallied 15 points and four steals for the Mustangs.
But it was Garcia who was the true tour de force for Memorial, finishing with a game-high 16 points, seven rebounds and five steals.
“We haven’t really worked the five-out on any other team because it hasn’t come down to four or three points like this has,” she said. “But it was a high-intensity situation and we were able to pull it off, so I’m really proud of our team and the fact that we brought it together mentally and physically.”