EDINBURG — With the first half nearly to a close, the third matchup between the Edinburg High Bobcats and Weslaco High Panthers on the hardwood resembled the teams’ recent history: a deadlock.
After splitting their first two meetings in district play, the Bobcats and Panthers ended the first quarter in a tie and each side faced trouble gaining any separation throughout the second.
That is, until Edinburg High’s Julissah Santa Maria caught fire.
Santa Maria unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers on the Panthers in the closing minutes of the first half. The junior guard sank three in a row from behind the arc to push Edinburg ahead by nine.
The Bobcats (34-3, 11-1) held on, securing a 52-42 victory over Weslaco High (26-5, 11-1) behind a big advantage from deep, offensively and defensively, and the offensive play of Santa Maria and senior forward Leslie Martinez on Friday night at Edinburg High School.
The Bobcats also claimed the district’s No. 1 seed in the playoffs with the victory.
“I thought our girls did a great job keeping it in a simple zone defense,” Edinburg High head coach John David Salinas said. “Weslaco does a great job, they’re extremely well coached and they were prepared for us. Anything we tried to do offensively, they had something for it on their defensive side. We were just happy that Julissah Santa Maria caught fire at the end of the first half. It kind of gave us a little bit of a cushion.”
The tiebreaker for 31-6A’s top seed between Edinburg High and Weslaco, the No. 1 and 2 ranked team in The Monitor’s High School Girls Basketball Top 10 Poll, marks the second time in as many years the two co-district champions have played the game. Edinburg High took last year’s tiebreaker game, too.
But the Bobcats started this game off trailing early.
The Panthers were able to storm out in front for an 8-0 edge thanks to their relentless full-court press and offensive opportunities in transition. But the Bobcats came storming back due to their work around the arc, sinking three 3-points to claw back and tie the Panthers by the end of the first.
Both teams came out of the gate in the second playing intense brands of defense, until Santa Maria’s scoring outburst cracked the game wide open.
“I was hitting my shots really good in the first half,” Santa Maria said. “Then we were lacking a little bit on defense, but we picked it up in the second half. We pulled through against a really good team in Weslaco.”
That energy clearly carried over for Edinburg coming out the break as they extended their advantage well into double digits and led by as much as 16 in the second half.
The Bobcats buckled down on the defensive end and locked down on the Panthers’ shooters across the perimeter, forcing them to drive down low into the teeth of their box-and-one zone.
Santa Maria and Martinez would capitalize on this for Edinburg High, as both players dropped bombs from behind the 3-point arc while also finding success slicing through the lane to the bucket.
“The energy was there and that’s what kept me going,” Santa Maria said. “After I did make those first few shots, I kind of shut down myself but with the energy of the crowd, the bench and my teammates, it made me feel confident again and that’s when I kept going.”
“Julissah did a great job of getting us points in the first half. She had half of our points in the first half,” Salinas said. “But then we were able to get some extra offense from Leslie. She did such a great job handling that.”
The Panthers mounted a late charge in the game’s final few minutes, but it wasn’t enough to climb out of a deep hole. Weslaco was led offensively by guard Hayley Villalpando, who tallied 11 points and a team-high eight steals, and freshman center Morgan Peralez, who posted an 11-point, 12-rebound double-double.
Martinez led the way offensively for Edinburg with a game-high 19 points and nine rebounds, while Santa Maria scored 12 points on 50% shooting from deep. The Bobcats were also helped greatly by guard Daysha Tijerina who added 11 points and center Brianna Sanchez who finished with six points and a game-high 15 rebounds.
The epic rivalry game provided both teams a taste of the playoff intensity that’s soon to follow.
“It’s the playoffs and it doesn’t matter how well we’ve done the whole season,” Salinas said. “We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
“We’ve got to play good defense,” Santa Maria said. “Our defense will get us going on the offensive side with some layups. We hopefully get that win also.”
The Bobcats will take on Brownsville Hanna in their bi-district playoff matchup at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Brownsville, while the Panthers will await the loser of Saturday’s District 32-6A No. 2 seed tiebreaker game between Harlingen South and Los Fresnos.