MISSION — Basketball in its purest form is a lot like music.
There are several moving pieces that have to find a way to meld together to manufacture a working melody and in both cases, nothing sounds more harmonious than a dynamite duet.
Basketball has long been defined in history by duos from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen through Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal through Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
These historic basketball twosomes thrived in their respective eras as co-stars with complementary styles, which is the way that senior teammates Ronnie Cantu and Keylee Flores have fashioned their games.
Cantu and Flores, Mission Veterans’ own dynamic duo, have forged perfectly complementary styles over the better part of a decade playing alongside one another. Heading down the stretch run of their final season together, the duo hopes to stay in sync as the Patriots tune up to make some serious noise in their playoff push.
“We’ve played together since sixth grade, going up to eighth grade and now coming into our senior year,” Cantu said. “We’ve always been that kind of dynamic duo being able to feed off of each other’s passes and shots. We’ve just kind of grown as players coming up together, and I think that’s really cool.”
Cantu and Flores’ playing styles are picture perfect fits when they step onto the hardwood in the same color jerseys.
Cantu is a savvy, creative combo guard. Although modeled more like a prototypical pass-first point guard, her ability to slash and carve up opposing defenses make her an elite scoring threat in addition to her crafty passing and court vision that open up the rest of the Patriots’ offense.
“She’s that player that can handle pressure, break pressure and get the team into the flow of their offense. That’s what Ronnie does for us,” Mission Veterans head coach Rafael Cantu said. “It’s hard to rattle her. You can’t trap her. That’s what makes her a great point guard.”
Flores, meanwhile, couldn’t be a better basketball fit.
Mission Veterans’ flashy forward is a spot-up shooter who leads the Valley in scoring averaging 17.9 points per game and has dead-eye accuracy from behind the arc. Flores’ prolific 3-point scoring punch is enough to knock out any opponent, but her ability to pass and play on and off the ball feeding off Cantu make her almost impossible to contain on the offensive end.
“Kaylee is most definitely the shooter. I’ve grown up as the point guard handling the ball. I think that our extended skill set — my ball handling, her shooting — that’s where we complement each other,” Ronnie Cantu said. “On the other hand, though, she can handle the ball too and I can shoot the ball too. I think that’s pretty cool that no matter who’s handling the ball and who’s shooting the ball, we’ve always got each other’s backs on both ends.”
Despite being a pass-first point guard at times, Cantu still averages 15.9 points per game compared to 4.3 assists. That makes the two seniors the only pair of teammates to rank among the Rio Grande Valley’s top eight scorers.
In fact, Cantu just needs six more points to become the second player throughout the Valley to eclipse the 500-point mark this season.
The first? Flores, her long-time teammate.
But what makes the duo of Cantu and Flores so dynamic and difficult to defend is their unspoken connection and chemistry forged over several years and dozens of games playing next to each other.
“We have a really good connection. We know where we’re going to be on the court,” Flores said. “She knows when I’m in the corner. We don’t have to look for each other because we already know where we’re going to be.”
“It’s very important. That’s the most important thing. You have to lead by example and do the things that are difficult. Anyone can do the easy things, but the difficult things require a little bit of that mental toughness,” Rafael Cantu said. “Ronnie and Kaylee have been through the grind and they know. They’ve played in a lot of big games and they know what it takes. Now it’s their time to lead the others and elevate the others’ games and inspire them to play even better.”
So far, Cantu and Flores have been able to do just that for a Mission Veterans squad that’s constructed quite differently from most of its stiffest competition.
PSJA Memorial, Rio Grande City and Sharyland Pioneer — District 31-5A’s three other playoff teams if the postseason started today — are all led offensively and defensively by towering, prominent post players.
The Patriots, however, are one of the smaller teams throughout the Valley and have had to find ways to outmuscle larger competition, a season-long endeavor that’s been spearheaded by Cantu and Flores particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
“Like my dad always says, ‘Offense wins games; defense wins championships.’ We’re one of the smallest teams and we’ve seen a lot of diversity in the game,” Ronnie Cantu said. “We’ve gone to tournaments where there are girls 6 feet taller than us. Even down here in the Valley, we’re considered a small team, so I think on the defensive end is where we really have to step it up because that’s what’s going to contribute to our offensive game.”
“I think that’s what brought us closer together, more than anything else,” Flores said thinking back to Mission Veterans’ difficult non-district slate. “It showed us that size doesn’t matter.”
That defensive tenacity and offensive firepower has the Patriots playing some of the top basketball in the Valley as the regular season nears an end.
Mission Vets has won five of its last six contests, winning three by 30 points or more. The Patriots have also held leads in all 10 of their district games thus far and will be looking for revenge with a grudge match Friday against the first-place Sharyland Pioneer Diamondbacks, an intimately familiar foe and bitter crosstown rival, as they jockey for playoff positioning and a crack at another district crown.
“It’ll be a playoff atmosphere,” Flores said. “We grew up playing against them.”
“We personally know players at Pioneer and we’ve grown up also playing against them. We’ve known what they’re capable of. This game coming up is really going to show what we’re capable of bringing to the table,” Ronnie Cantu said. “This is the end. This is where we finally show what we’re made of, who we are and this Pioneer game coming up, it’s really going to define our season. Considering this is a rivalry game, this is really going to test our ability to show the team that we are.”