BY ANDREW McCULLOCH
EDINBURG — The Edinburg High Lady Bobcats and Weslaco High Lady Panthers entered their first district matchup against one another with high stakes and a lot to prove on either side.
The Lady Bobcats and Lady Panthers, who are ranked No. 1 and No. 3 respectively in The Monitor’s Valley High School Girls Basketball Top 10, shared the District 31-6A title a year ago and came into Friday’s contest with the two best records throughout the Rio Grande Valley.
Like two heavyweight prize fighters, the bitter rivals traded blows throughout the night in a defensive slugfest with Weslaco High (22-5, 4-0) escaping with a razor thin 47-46 victory over Edinburg High (25-3, 3-1) on Friday night at Edinburg High School.
The Panthers’ win moves the team into first place in 31-6A and hands the Bobcats their first loss against a Valley team all season.
“It feels so amazing. Hard work pays off,” Weslaco High freshman center Morgan Peralez said. “We worked hard, we did everything together and we didn’t give up.”
“I’m proud of the fact that we gave ourselves an opportunity to win,” Edinburg High head coach John David Salinas said. “Weslaco is a quality team and a quality program. This is what we talked about going in; we knew this was going to be the game to be at.”
Edinburg and Weslaco played a back-and-forth game from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Both sides had trouble generating consistent offense from the jump, as the Bobcats’ physical man-to-man defense kept Weslaco’s shooters at bay, while the Panthers’ used several variations of a full court press to fluster their opponent.
“There are a lot of teams that are definitely better than us offensively I feel,” Weslaco High head coach Griselda Fino said. “They’ve got a little bit more talent than we do, but defense is one of those things that requires a lot of grit, a lot of heart and a lot of hustle. That’s one thing that another team can’t have in front of us or more than us, so that’s what we implement in our program and it paid dividends tonight.”
The Panthers carried a 16-13 lead into the second quarter and knocked down several 3-pointers before the half, but struggled to gain any significant separation. The Bobcats, meanwhile, were able to get to the free-throw line at will and converted 14 of 19 shots from the charity stripe to keep it a three-point game at the intermission.
“Daysha (Tijerina) hit some big free throws and Leslie (Martinez) too. We were struggling just to get any type of good offense, but getting to the line was big,” Salinas said. “Daysha is like a 91% free-throw shooter and Leslie is over about 80%. Them getting to the line is good for us, it’s almost automatic. Going into halftime down three, it was anybody’s game.”
Edinburg was able to trim Weslaco’s lead to 37-36 by the end of the third quarter thanks in large part to varying up its defensive sets.
The Bobcats carried some of that momentum into the final quarter and led by as much as seven down the stretch, but turnovers prevented them from completely putting away the Panthers for good.
“We were playing a man-to-man and we went to different types of zones, but we made some crucial turnovers off of our rebounds,” Salinas said. “We would work hard to get the possession and then turn the ball over and that hurts us. It was going to be a defensive battle the whole way.”
Instead, the Panthers clawed back by putting the Bobcats in foul trouble and capitalized off turnovers in transition for easy buckets.
Weslaco ultimately staked a one-point lead with a little more than a minute to go. Rather than going deeper into foul trouble, Edinburg forced a key turnover but was unable to convert on two would-be game-winning shots in the final 15 seconds.
“I was really scared and thought that shot was going to go in,” Peralez said. “Thank the Lord it got knocked away out of bounds. I was just happy that we worked so hard against this team and came out victorious.”
Peralez was the star of the night for the Panthers, posting a 12-point, 16-rebound double-double and hung with one of the top senior centers in the area all night.
“It was an honor to play against her,” Peralez said. “She was really tough, and she toughened me up for sure.”
Guards Kristen Padilla and Melanie Carrion helped carry Weslaco offensively with 12 and eight points, respectively. Tijerina tallied a game-high 17 points and 9 rebounds for Edinburg, while Martinez and Julissah Santa Maria chipped in a combined 21 points.