MISSION — Trailing by one point with the game and a spot in the UIL Class 6A State Playoffs on the line, the La Joya Coyotes needed an answer.
With 17.7 seconds left, La Joya inbounded the ball on its side of the court. The ball touched two Coyotes’ hands before finding senior forward Santi Rodriguez.
Now down to seven seconds, Rodriguez took his man off the dribble, found a spot from the right elbow and pulled up over the top from 3-point range.
The Mission High gymnasium went silent as McAllen Memorial and La Joya High fans watched the ball sail toward the basket and roll around the rim for what seemed like an eternity before falling through the rim as time expired.
Then, madness, as La Joya celebrated its 52-50 win over the Mustangs in a play-in game to lock up the final playoff spot in District 30-6A. It’s the Coyotes first postseason appearance since the 2016-2017 season.
“I didn’t want to go home. We worked hard for four years, committed to the program, and I just didn’t want to go home with an ‘L’,” Rodriguez said. “Coach drew up a play for one of our shooters, but we had to play until the last second. I had the shot and I just had to take it. It feels amazing.”
La Joya head coach Eric Montalvo said he drew up a play that didn’t work out, but once Rodriguez had the ball, it was go-time.
“Santi just realized he had to go, and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and I’ll take that. It’s exhilarating,” Montalvo said. “Hard work pays off. We’re big on that with our kids and our program and you have to work hard to gain some success. You experience the lows and the highs, but you just got to stick with it.”
For the first 31 minutes and 43 seconds, the game was a back-and-forth affair as both teams played hungry for the No. 4-seed in District 30-6A.
McAllen Memorial’s Christian Espinoza dropped a game-high 24 points, while Arian Elizondo added 12 to spark the Mustangs (16-19, 8-7) late in the fourth quarter, pushing them ahead on the scoreboard.
But La Joya’s Cesar Villarreal was in attack mode from the opening tip to the final buzzer as the junior led the Coyotes with 18 points. One quarter prior to Rodriguez’s game-winning 3, Villarreal beat the third quarter buzzer with a long-range make of his own.
He said Montalvo was preaching about focus against McAllen Memorial, and Villarreal and Rodriguez were locked in when they drained their huge shots against the Mustangs.
“He was telling us we have to focus, do anything possible to win this game and we did it,” Villarreal said. “It’s emotional. We get doubted every day. We’re La Joya, we’re a small team, but we pulled through.”
Rodriguez’s game-winner was his only make of the second half, but the biggest of his career.
“It means a lot. We’ve been working for four years, we haven’t been to the playoffs for three years, and it feels amazing just to experience this,” he said.
“Santi is a senior, he’s been with us three years, Cesar is a junior, and we’ve had some season-ending injuries a couple years back, so we’ve had to move them up to varsity earlier than expected,” Montalvo said. “We took our hits, we had a lot of people doubting us and questioning us, but we just told the kids stick to the process. There’s going to be growing pains, but it’s going to pay off, and sure enough, tonight it paid off.”
La Joya High finishes the regular season at 21-15 and will play on into the postseason for the first time in three years. Awaiting the Coyotes is a first-round matchup against Laredo United. The Coyotes’ bi-district matchup is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Laredo United High School.