McAllen High's Lola Mallard (13) advances the ball against Valley View in a game at McAllen High School on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

McALLEN — McAllen High is no stranger to high-stakes games, but Saturday’s regular-season finale against Valley View was as consequential as possible.

The Bulldogs, who were set to play their fourth game in five days, had to win to guarantee their spot in the postseason while Valley View was tasked with winning twice in the same afternoon to force a win-or-go-home play-in game for District 31-5A’s fourth seed.

But McHi buckled down on their homecourt and rallied for a 47-33 win over Valley View early Saturday afternoon to pick up its third victory in five days and complete a long, chaotic journey back to the state playoffs by securing the final postseason berth in the Rio Grande Valley.

“We just wanted to get it done. We didn’t want to have to play them again,” said Bulldogs junior power forward Celina Saenz. “It feels crazy that we’re even being able to play during this time, but we’re excited to be playing into the playoffs.”

Valley View gained an early edge thanks to a quick start and led 13-8 by the end of the first quarter.

The Bulldogs, however, came roaring back by beginning the second quarter on a 14-2 run to break the game wide open. McHi dominated defensively, in the rebounding battle and in transition to take a commanding lead that the team never relinquished.

Saenz led the furious rally, finishing the night with a monster double-double and tallied 24 points, 16 rebounds and six steals in the win, all of which were team highs.

McAllen High’s Celina Saenz (22) drives to the net against Valley View in a game at McAllen High School on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“Coach told us before the game to focus on three things: mental toughness, attack the basket and defense. I think we really took that into account and put it onto the court,” Saenz said. “It’s a huge part of how we play. I think our defense is what wins us games. When we stop them from scoring, that’s what really gets our momentum going.”

The victory culminates a lengthy journey back to the postseason for the Bulldogs, who haven’t made a state playoffs appearance since 2019.

McHi came tantalizing close to making a repeat trip to the playoffs last season when the team was faced with a similar scenario.

The Bulldogs entered the final week of the regular season in 2020 battling for the fourth and final postseason berth in District 30-6A but lost their final three district games to finish in fifth place and miss out on the state playoffs by one game.

The team has been motivated and determined to earn its redemption following that disappointing finish nearly a year ago.

“It feels great because last year I was kind of upset that we didn’t make it after we had worked so hard,” Saenz said. “This season we worked really hard as well and I’m just glad that we were able to finish with that spot.”

McHi’s path to the postseason this time around was unquestionably filled with more hurdles than seasons past.

The Bulldogs were one of many District 31-5A squads and teams across the RGV that faced a COVID-19 quarantine midway through district play in mid-January.

That set up a chaotic finish to the regular season for teams throughout the 31-5A in the final two weeks of the district slate with none having secured playoff berths heading into the final week of the regular season.

McAllen High’s Carly Ditto (30) attempts a basket against Valley View in a game at McAllen High School on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“When we had to reset the schedule, I told the girls that it’s an NBA schedule,” Cantu said. “We’re playing back-to-back-to-back and it’s just one of those things where we had to mentally prepare ourselves.

The Bulldogs, however, ran the gauntlet in the final days of the season by securing victories over PSJA Memorial, PSJA Southwest, Sharyland High, crosstown rival McAllen Rowe and beating Valley View twice to leapfrog the Tigers in the district standings on the eve of the state playoffs.

McHi was also dealt near-crippling defeats by district champions Sharyland Pioneer and McAllen Memorial that nearly knocked the team out of postseason contention.

But the Bulldogs endured the emotional highs and lows, turmoil on the court and the mentally taxing and physically draining schedule placed in front of them to earn the Valley’s final postseason berth in dramatic fashion.

“It’s been very tiring,” Saenz said. “We’ve all had to recuperate and just go day after day and keep trying to push ourselves even after all these games.”

“It’s not just physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting too,” Cantu said. “Kudos to the girls. They’ve done an amazing job and responded really well. … There’s a huge amount of fight in these girls and no one can take that away from them. That’s great to see as a coach.”

McHi now moves on to the bi-district round of the Class 5A state playoffs, where the Bulldogs will face the Brownsville Veterans Chargers, the 23rd-ranked team in the state, at 7 p.m. Friday in McAllen.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch