CORPUS CHRISTI — It took Sharyland Pioneer seven stressful, uncertain days and an unpredictable season fraught with obstacles to get back to the area round of the Class 5A girls basketball state playoffs.
It also took Pioneer nearly 35 minutes of game time to take their first lead of the contest against the Victoria West Warriors, but none of that could stop the Diamondbacks.
In an instant classic Friday afternoon at Corpus Christi Miller High School, Sharyland Pioneer took its first lead of the game with 72 seconds to play.
It was part of a frenetic 9-2 run in the final 2 minutes to lift the Diamondbacks to a thrilling 38-35 come-from-behind victory and into the regional quarterfinals for the first time in school history.
“My heart is still going a million miles an hour,” Sharyland Pioneer head coach Nicole Villarreal said. “I believed in my kids. It was my job to keep calm and my job to get them to play to their potential. … We had to find a way. We had to control the things we could control and find a way.”
“It’s a blessing because we didn’t think we were going to be able to have a season due to the pandemic,” said senior guard Danielle Rangel, who scored nine points and drilled two clutch 3-pointers to lead Pioneer to the dramatic win. “Hopefully, when we go to regionals, we keep on going.”
The Diamondbacks trailed for the entirety of the first three quarters but stayed within striking distance.
Victoria West never led by more than six points, as the Warriors and D’backs exchanged blows like a pair of prizefighters during the opening half. West carried an 18-14 edge into halftime, but Pioneer cut it to a two-point game on a buzzer-beating midrange jumper by Natalie Reyes to end the third quarter.
That’s when the Diamondbacks started to find their rhythm.
“When we started, it wasn’t a very good game for us,” Rangel said. “It was very frustrating in the beginning because we had to get into our game. When we went to halftime, (Coach Villarreal) told us, ‘Y’all need to play the way you play, then y’all will have this game.’”
Pioneer relied on crisp ball movement within its half-court offense to chip away at Victoria West’s lead, tying the game for the first time with under 7 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
A quick scoring burst put the Warriors back up by as much as six points midway through the final quarter, when the Diamondbacks shifted into a full-court press that changed the complexion of the game.
Pioneer’s full-court pressure disrupted the flow of Victoria West’s offense and forced several costly turnovers down the stretch.
“That was very big; it shifted the momentum towards us just like that in a matter of seconds,” junior point guard Reyes said. “It was crazy. It was a complete shifter from top to bottom.”
But the Diamondbacks remained deliberate in their attack, refusing to push the pace and play into the hands of their opponent.
Instead, Pioneer started slinging the ball around the 3-point arc and dropping bombs from deep.
Rangel dropped the first of a trio of clutch 3-pointers to bring the Diamondbacks to within three points of tying the game. Senior forward Audry Hornaday nailed the second, which bounced off the front of the rim and in, on the next possession following a Warriors’ tip-in to make it 35-33 West with less than 2 minutes to go.
Then Rangel delivered the dagger, Pioneer’s third consecutive bucket from beyond the arc, with a hand in her face from the wing to give the Diamondbacks a 36-35 lead, their first of the game, and send the crowd into a frenzy.
“When I shot that 3, I knew in my head we had to do some quick scoring,” Rangel said. “I felt (like I was in) a groove.”
“I can’t say enough about Danny (Rangel),” Villarreal said. “We knew we needed a quick score and she set her feet and let it rip.”
Hornaday sealed the win with a pair of free throws before a Warriors’ desperation heave from the corner clanked off the rim.
“It’s very, very exciting,” Reyes said. “I’m excited to be a part of it with the girls I love and have our whole family come together to get to the regional quarterfinals.”
Sharyland Pioneer, which has won 33 of its last 34 four games against Class 5A competition, improves to 20-2 on the season with the victory and moves onto the third round of the playoffs joining McAllen Memorial, which punched its ticket with an area-round win Thursday in Los Fresnos.
The Diamondbacks will face the Victoria East Titans, who defeated Brownsville Veterans on Friday in Corpus Christi, in the 5A regional quarterfinals at a time, date and place still to be determined.