ALICE — There were a lot of tears after Harlingen High’s 61-38 loss to Converse Judson in a Class 6A regional semifinal, but they weren’t from disappointment.
Lady Cardinals coach Ashley Moncivaiz was emotional after the game, overwhelmed with pride for how her team competed against the perennial power Rockets. Judson (25-1) was a state semifinalist last season, won a state championship the year prior and is the four-time defending Region IV champion. The Lady Cardinals gave Judson everything they had, and Moncivaiz couldn’t have asked for more.
“I’m proud of them. They worked so hard. They gave it their all, so this emotion is from that,” Moncivaiz said. “Shots didn’t fall, but you know what? We gave our all to the end and that’s what it’s about, coming out and competing, and doing your best.”
Harlingen High came out with no fear and matched Judson’s tempo from the start with Juli Bryant, Callie Cervantes and Rosa Zapata leading the charge. Bryant showed off her range by working hard inside the paint against Judson’s Amira Mabry and knocking down a 3-pointer to score five of Harlingen High’s 10 first-quarter points.
“We gave it our all. What we put on the court was the best we’ve done all season,” Bryant said. “We knew it was going to be a battle, and we wanted to prove our point that we aren’t underdogs. It was a hell of a game, and I’m glad I got to experience it with these girls.”
Mabry cleaned up on the boards to keep the Rockets in control. Senior point guard Kierra Sanderlin shined offensively and defensively, and she scored 14 points to put Judson up 24-10 after the first quarter.
Both defenses took over in a low-scoring second quarter. Zapata, Cervantes, Sydney Portillo and Emery Scoggins forced turnovers and pressured Judson’s ball-handlers at the top of Harlingen High’s setup. Bryant, Laylah Badiru and Athena Linnartz made good defensive plays down low and beat the Rockets on some rebounds to hold Judson to 12 points in the quarter.
“(Bryant) did a really great job. She didn’t back down,” Moncivaiz said. “They knew it was going to be a fight in there, and we kept on subbing people in. They understood what their role was, to go in there and defend, and they went out there and did it.”
Harlingen High’s defense continued to challenge Judson during the second half. After the high-scoring first quarter, the Lady Cardinals didn’t allow the Rockets to score more than 14 points in any of the following three quarters. Bryant (nine points), Zapata and Avery Hinojosa (10) gave Judson fits during the third quarter, forcing turnovers and missed shots in the paint to hold the Rockets to their lowest offensive production of the game.
The Lady Cardinals trimmed Judson’s lead at the start of the fourth as the defense continued to be their anchor. Cervantes (11) and Bryant combined for a 6-0 scoring run to get within 14 points of the lead, causing Judson to call a timeout and bringing the capacity Harlingen High crowd to its feet.
“We gave it our all ’til the final buzzer. I’m super proud of all of these girls,” Cervantes said. “I think we did the best that we could. They can’t say that we gave them an easy game because we gave them a game, we played our defense and did what we were supposed to do. But (Sanderlin) is an amazing player, she’s unstoppable and I wish them the best of luck the rest of their season.”
Sanderlin (28), Mabry (15), Michaela Verrett (12) and Aaliyah Henderson led Judson’s response in the back end of the fourth that widened the gap again. The Lady Cardinals stayed aggressive and competed a little better each quarter, fighting for rebounds and finding lanes to the basket.
But Harlingen High couldn’t get shots to fall with enough frequency to mount a comeback. The Lady Cardinals ended the season at 23-3, with another District 32-6A championship in tow and their first Sweet 16 appearance in eight years. With several key players returning next season, this test against Judson will be turned into a positive in the long run.
“I think (how we played in this game is) going to boost our momentum when we hit practice,” Bryant said. “We’re going to start offseason right away and work really hard, and hopefully meet them again and kick their butts. This is a learning experience, and I think it can help us get further and further in years to come.”