Lyford picks up key district win over Monte Alto

LYFORD — The Lyford Bulldogs have been playing their home basketball games without fans at Veterans Gym, but that didn’t mean there was any eerie silence when they battled the Monte Alto Blue Devils on Tuesday.

The energy in the gym was palpable as both benches loudly hyped up their teams, jumping to their feet, clapping and waving towels after big plays. Lyford fed off the energy to fuel its 100-mph tempo and control the second half, avenging its first-round District 31-3A loss to the Blue Devils with a 79-63 win to stay in the mix for the district title.

“It feels great. We were able to hustle for four quarters and come out with a big victory,” Bulldogs coach Eli Esquivel said. “We’ve been preparing for this game for a while now. We know Monte Alto has a heck of a coach, they’ve got good kids and they hustle, so we knew coming into this game that there was going to be a lot of intensity. I told my guys to match the intensity and outwork them, because that’s what it takes to beat a team like that.”

Lyford showed an all-gas, no-brakes mentality to jump out to a commanding 22-0 lead after three minutes of play. Justin Vela led a full-court press that refused to let Monte Alto cross half court, and he swiped steals with ease to feed his teammates with long passes for open looks. Cayleb Klostermann scored 10 points during the first quarter, and Ryan Rivera hit two 3-pointers to go along with six points from Vela to cushion the lead.

“We like playing fast. Our thing is we want to press teams so it speeds up the game and it works to our advantage. We want to have the ball in our hands as much as possible,” Esquivel said.

The Blue Devils didn’t let the score or the raucous Bulldogs bench rattle them. Benny Sarrion and Raul Mancillas sparked a 9-0 scoring run to sway the momentum and cut Monte Alto’s deficit to 29-13 after one quarter.

Sarrion’s rebounding efficiency on both ends of the court and some clutch shooting from behind the arc got the bench fired up as Monte Alto came roaring back during the final minutes of the first half. Vincent Cavazos (18 points) played tight defense and bulldozed to the basket on offense to drop nine points during the second quarter. Mancillas (14 points) fired from well beyond the 3-point line early and often, and he knocked down two 3s in the frame to make it a seven-point game at halftime.

Both teams struggled to create good looks and finish shots during the third quarter as the defenses took over. Sarrion (14 points) continued to dominate under the basket, using his size and physicality to bring down rebounds and score 10 of Monte Alto’s 12 points in the frame.

Lyford’s deeper bench allowed the Bulldogs to create some separation during the final 12 minutes despite good fight from Cavazos and Co. in the fourth quarter. Julio Cantu came off the bench and energized his team with solid defense and a score. Angel Torres, Jordan Deluna and Diego Garza held down the paint and started beating the Blue Devils on the boards, which allowed Lyford to maintain possession of the ball and swing it around to eat clock.

Rivera paced the Bulldogs with 19 points, followed by Klostermann’s 18. Vela ran the offense and contributed 15 points along with stellar defense. Torres scored 11 and put together a solid performance down low.

“Justin’s a great competitor. I talked to him before the game and said, ‘Hey, we expect a big game from you,’ and he delivered,” Esquivel said. “We didn’t have (Klostermann) the first time we played this team, and he definitely adds another dynamic to this team. Guys down low came up big. We had guys come off the bench and help us out, whether it be one minute or two minutes. These guys really know their role and what they need to provide to this team.”