MISSION — In a matchup that pitted playoff veterans against postseason newcomers and featured some of the top guard play from across the Rio Grande Valley, the Mission Veterans Patriots (24-12) and Valley View Tigers (25-12) had to fight and claw for every point.
In one of the most physical, scrappy games of the season, the Patriots and Tigers traded blows throughout the contest leading to a tight race to the finish. That’s when Mission Veterans guard Kaylee Flores took over.
The Patriots senior shooting guard drove hard into the lane and finished through contact to get the free throw line, where she was lethal. Flores and fellow senior guard Ronnie Cantu combined for 29 points and gave Mission Veterans big advantage from the free throw line to escape with a narrow 36-32 bi-district playoff victory over Valley View on Monday night at Mission Veterans Memorial High School.
“This win means a lot to us,” Flores said. “We prepared, we had three really hard intense practices and I think we wanted it more.”
“We missed a lot of easy shots,” Valley View head coach Arnold Martinez said. “We missed too many easy shots early and missed too many free throws. Results like this happens and I know it hurts them, but we have eight girls coming back and it’s a learning process. That’s all I could ask for at half time. It look liked we couldn’t do anything, but they put up a fight in the second half for their community and their crowd. I think they made it a good game and that’s all we needed to do: Put up a good fight.”
The Patriots, however, actually started the game in a bit of a hole before taking charge. They trailed the Tigers 2-0 early on after a rough shooting start, but quickly reeled off a 7-0 run to take a five-point edge.
But the second quarter was an even bigger offensive success for Mission Veterans. Cantu and Flores had field days driving to the basket from the wing or high post, often finishing through contact to put Valley View in foul trouble.
The Patriots went on another 7-0 run near the end of the half to take an 11-point advantage, the biggest of the contest. Cantu and Flores each scored nine in the opening half, accounting for 18 of their team’s 20 total points at the break.
The Tigers, meanwhile, struggled mightily to shoot efficiently in the first half. They shot just 8% from inside the arc and 14% from deep, but Mission Veterans dipped into foul trouble of its own to keep Valley View in the game.
The Tigers, however, jumped out to a great start in the second half, raising the tempo of the game and mixing up their defensive sets.
They went on a 9-2 scoring burst to trim the Patriots’ lead to as few as three during the third quarter. Valley View kept the assault going in the fourth and came within one point of finally retaking the lead down 32-31.
Center Jimena Munoz was a force operating out of the high post with 10 points and nine rebounds for the Tigers, while forward JC Prado and guards Daniela Garza and Lexi Ortegon combined for another 17 points.
“It’s almost like what we saw this year. We got off to a good start, stumbled and we had to find a way to find ourselves,” Martinez said. “We found ourselves in the second half, but again we fell short with free throws and rebounds.”
That was the key difference maker down the stretch for both sides: rebounding and free throws.
The under-sized Patriots actually beat the Tigers on the glass 37-26, an area that Valley View appeared to dominate on paper. The largely collective effort by Mission Veterans on the boards gave it many crucial second-chance opportunities, which played a big factor in the final outcome.
“Our post players did a great job on the boards. I thought Valley View was about our size, but no they’re bigger than us,” Mission Veterans head coach Rafael Cantu said. “The girls had to fight. Our posts — Leila, Kelly Nyleen — and we had some guards come in like Ashley, Anissa and Andrea who came in and did a great job. Everyone did a great job and it was a total team win. That’s what you need in the playoffs. It’s got to be everybody.”
But the Patriots ultimately won this contest down the stretch at the free throw line. The team converted 16 of 23 attempts (70%) compared to Valley View’s 13 of 30 (43%) showing from the charity stripe.
Flores led the way, sinking 12 of 14 attempts. She took advantage of Valley View’s foul trouble by attacking the basket to get to the line and finished with a team-high nine second-half points.
“Yes, any time that’s happening that’s what you’ve got to do. Take advantage, lower your shoulder, get through and finish strong,” Flores said. “Free throws are a huge impact on the game. We practice free throws a lot, so we’re ready for moments like these.”
“They had to dig down deep. (Valley View) was playing a triangle and two, which means that Ronnie and Kaylee were both being grabbed, held, pushed and shoved all game long. Aside from having to do their job on defense, they were also being hounded on offense, so they were playing kind of like pinballs out there,” Cantu said. “But they didn’t back down and kept fighting. It was kind of a game where I saw in the girls’ eyes that they weren’t going to let go. I could see it in the huddle in their eyes and this game was not going to be let go.”
For the Valley View, it ends a history-making season in which the Tigers clinched their first-ever trip to the 5A playoffs and first postseason berth in 15 years. With eight players returning, the future looks bright in Pharr.
“The experience of knowing that we weren’t supposed to be any good to putting in a lot of hard work and making them believe. I tell them, ‘We have to become overbelievers before we become overachievers,’” Martinez said. “I think we really overachieved this year because we believed a lot. … It was a great year, and I’m proud to be a Tiger.”
For Mission Veterans, the Patriots move on to the area round for the first time since 2016 and will await the winner of Flour Bluff and Victoria West for their area round matchup Friday at Texas A&M-Kingsville.
“We’re really pumped up, as you could tell by the end of the game. We all stormed on the court,” Flores said. “It’s just a great feeling and we’re really excited and pumped. We’re going to work very hard in practice too to determine the future.”