BY ANDREW McCULLOCH
WESLACO — With the shot clock turned off, the Mission High Eagles inbounded the ball at midcourt with less than 20 seconds to play needing either a 3-pointer for the win or a quick drive or mid-range shot to tie.
The Eagles circled the ball around the perimeter looking for the perfect opening. Mission’s Janelli Gutierrez fired a bounce pass to Mayella Cantu in the low post.
Cantu posted up, dribbled three times and turned right to shoot but was met by a cadre of Weslaco East defenders who closed in as she elevated. Cantu muscled through contact and two or three Wildcats defenders who forced the shot to roll around the rim and out, as brilliant backcourt play helped Weslaco East edge Mission’s ferocious frontcourt 39-37 in a defensive battle Friday night at Weslaco East High School.
“I think that we really stayed together as a team the entire time,” Weslaco East point guard Jamie Tanguma said. “There were times where we thought it wasn’t going to go in our favor, but we really just had to remind ourselves that it’s our team and our court. We just had to push through.”
On a night where both offenses struggled to generate points, Jamie and Janelle Tanguma, the Wildcats’ starting guard combo, were the two most lethal scoring options on the court.
Jamie tallied a game-high 17 points on an ultra-efficient 75% shooting, as Janelle added nine points, nine rebounds and four steals while hitting 7 of 11 free throws. The Tanguma sisters were especially critical to Weslaco East’s late-game success, as both were able to reliably get to the free-throw line and sink big shots to hold off Mission’s come-back bid.
“They made some big free throws that don’t normally go in for us,” Weslaco East head coach Chris Kromer said. “We were 3 for 9 in the first half and I don’t know what we were in the second, but it looked like we hit some crucial ones. You win games at the free-throw line and it’s probably the most neglected thing in basketball.”
The Wildcats shot 12 of 24 from the charity stripe on the night, but sank many of those free throws in the fourth quarter when the Eagles found themselves in early foul trouble.
Mission altered between half-court traps and full-court pressing for most of the second half as part of their stifling defensive effort. The Eagles generated 15 steals from their stingy full-court pressure defense, but their physical style of play gave the Wildcats chances from the line.
Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Mission recorded its seventh team foul of the half, putting Weslaco East into the bonus. The Eagles’ backed off a bit due to foul trouble, which is when the Tanguma sisters and Wildcats took advantage and broke their press.
The Wildcats’ defense forced problems for the Eagles all night, too. Jamie Tanguma and the rest of East’s guards were able to force several key turnovers and capitalize with easy transition buckets to preserve their edge.
“I think our defense allowed us to get down the court without defenders,” Jamie Tanguma said. “In the beginning, we had good layups and at the end we tried just taking the shots we were comfortable with. This is our court, we practice here and our shots go in.”
Despite a difficult night of shooting from the floor, Cantu along with fellow forwards Hay-ley Garza and Danielle Muñoz kept the Eagles close with second-chance points, combining for 22.
Mission’s physical defense and dominance on the boards helped keep the team in the game. The Eagles’ overwhelming number of offensive rebounds in the second quarter helped them narrow a 10-5 first-quarter deficit to a two-point halftime lead for the Wild-cats.
Mission bullied Weslaco East on the glass again after the break, as the two teams matched each other score for score. Seven Eagles tallied multiple rebounds led by Cantu and Gutierrez’s eight apiece, and the group out rebounded the Wildcats 35-28 on the night.
“We got murdered on the boards,” Kromer said. “We tweaked our defense a little bit at halftime to try to box out better and I think we did. They were killing us on the boards. I think if we had done a better job of boxing out in the first half, we might not have been in that moment.”
Ironically, however, it was a game-winning rebound that sealed the win in the end for the Wildcats. Lizzy Carranza, Danielle Castillo and Leanna Charles each tallied four re-bounds down the stretch to help neutralize Mission’s advantage on the glass.
It’s a watershed moment for Weslaco East, which has struggled to close out games and score consistently after three significant injuries. It also signals improvement for the Wildcats as they prepare for a tough district slate.
“Well, I think we have a good chance against the same teams we beat last year, but we really want to go farther than that,” Jamie Tanguma said. “We want to get a good seed in the playoffs, so we’re going to have to learn to score against harder defenses and bigger teams.”
Weslaco East will return to action to at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at home against PSJA North, while Mission will play at home at 6 p.m. Tuesday against IDEA Mission.