Cougars use defense to defeat Cardinals

HARLINGEN — For three and a half quarters, the Class 6A bi-district contest between the Harlingen High Cardinals and Edinburg North Cougars was a back-and-forth affair.

The Cardinals had a slim lead at the end of the first three quarters, but the Cougars pulled away in the fourth to secure a 73-68 win and advance to the area round. Edinburg North’s menacing defense kept Harlingen High’s offense limited and created open looks in the final minutes to get the win.

“In the fourth quarter when we got the five-point lead, we buckled down a little harder on defense and caused them to make some turnovers,” Cougars coach Rudy Garcia said. “The guys just remembered all the hard work they’ve put in all year long, even through this horrible year, and we instilled in them that if we’re going to win, we’re going to win with defense, and we did.”

Michael Castillo and John Salinas got Harlingen High off to a strong start offensively. The Cardinals passed the ball around to draw out Edinburg North’s defense and finished at the bucket to get an early 11-7 lead. Castillo, Salinas and Evan Vasquez, who competed well down low against Edinburg North’s size, scored four points apiece to put Harlingen High on top 17-14 after the first.

Edinburg North tied things up and took its first lead during the second quarter, largely on the shoulders of a relentless defensive effort led by Aaron Gonzalez. The Cougars swarmed to the ball and played tight coverage to throw the Cardinals off their game and spark scoring runs of their own. Anthony Thomas came in off the bench and antagonized Harlingen High, as he stuck like glue to Castillo and other ball handlers.

“I think (their defense) made it tough for us to get into our offense, and we weren’t able to ever get comfortable,” Cardinals coach Clayton Cretors said. “They did a good job pressuring us, extending their pressure, and it was tough to get set up so we never got quality looks, and that’s credit to them.”

Even with the Cougars slowing down Harlingen High’s offense, the Cardinals maintained a 32-31 lead at halftime. Castillo (19 points) scored nine points during the second quarter, with two 3-pointers, to keep his team afloat.

Both teams’ defenses shined in a third quarter filled with ties and lead changes. Edinburg North was the better rebounding team throughout the contest, but Harlingen High’s Ian Solis and Eric Quilantan competed on the boards in the third quarter to give their team extra scoring chances. But the Cardinals’ 3-point shooting efficiency wasn’t there, and they couldn’t get the ball inside consistently against the Cougars’ interior defense.

Cristian Faz (11), Ethan Garza (14) and Eduardo Gonzalez locked up the paint and controlled the boards for Edinburg North. Ethan Gomez had a solid quarter for the Cougars, but Quilantan impressed offensively and defensively to keep the Cardinals on top 50-49 heading to the fourth.

The Cougars jumped out to a 57-52 lead early in the final quarter as their defense and speed forced Harlingen High to play behind and rack up fouls. Edinburg North consistently attacked the basket and was solid at the free-throw line, sinking 10 of 14 shots to maintain the lead down the stretch. Gomez (13), Garza and the defense from Aaron Gonzalez (13) and Lopez sealed the win for the Cougars.

“We were able to execute better than we were in the beginning of the game, and that helped us get some easy buckets. Guys went hard to the basket, and we either got the foul or the basket or both,” Garcia said. “We’ve prided ourselves on defense all year long. They had some great players that even though we were on them really good, they were still able to get to the basket or get some open shots. But we kept saying, ‘We worked so hard on defense, now is the time to get it going.’ And we did.”

Ryan Sanchez (14), Salinas (14) and Quilantan (11) kept the Cardinals fighting, tying the game at 62 and keeping the lead slim for some time. But Edinburg North’s rebounding, offensive attack and stellar defense didn’t allow for a comeback.

“They did a really good job attacking the paint, and we just couldn’t find the stops when we needed to,” Cretors said. “I was really proud of their effort, playing with a lot of heart and never quitting, never giving in. I don’t think we shot the ball like we have in the past, and we didn’t rebound the ball too well either. We just didn’t make the plays that were necessary to come up with the ‘W.’”