Feb. 23—By CLAIRE CRUZ, Staff Writer
CORPUS CHRISTI — When the final buzzer sounded Monday at Corpus Christi Calallen, the Harlingen High Lady Cardinals and their faithful fans erupted.
The Lady Cardinals rode their incessant defensive pressure to a 62-45 victory over San Antonio Harlan, punching their ticket to the Class 6A regional quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Harlingen High's starting five of Rosa Zapata, Layla Salas, Avery Hinojosa, Sydney Portillo and Callie Cervantes led a full team effort to set up a date with rival Edinburg High in Round 3 and a chance at redemption.
"It feels amazing, but we're not done yet," Lady Cardinals coach Ashley Moncivaiz said. "We just came focused and ready to play. It takes a team to get to the next round. You're not able to do it with just certain players, you need the whole team. Some of the girls that didn't step onto the court are the ones that helped us prepare for this night."
Harlingen High's defense and Zapata's exuberant play put the Lady Cardinals in control with a 14-6 lead after the first quarter. Harlan's Layla Conley strung together five straight points to keep the Lady Hawks close early, then the Lady Cardinals flexed their defensive muscles.
Zapata and Cervantes squared up Harlan's ball-handlers and stuck to them like glue, forcing turnovers and mishaps that Harlingen High turned into points. Zapata went coast-to-coast for layups and knocked down a 3-pointer to open up the advantage.
"My mindset was to give it my all," Zapata said. "I think I did really good, because I haven't played four quarters in a long time and I just pushed myself because I have a lot of eyes on me right now, so I needed to play with all my heart. I just realized that this is a one-of-a-kind team, and we couldn't lose here."
Portillo kept the momentum rolling with a hot start to the second quarter. She battled for a rebound then finished with the putback bucket, and followed that up by turning a steal into an open layup. Moncivaiz shuffled the lineup with substitutions to help Harlingen High push the tempo of the game. Laylah Badiru came off the bench and fired up the crowd with a three-point play to make it 21-7 midway through the frame.
Harlan responded with a scoring run aided by solid defense from Imani Jarrett. Conley and Hannah Gallegos racked up the fouls as they raced to the basket and were a combined 7-for-9 from the free-throw line to cut the deficit to 28-17 at halftime.
The Harlan Lady Hawks continued to chip away at Harlingen High's lead with an improved defensive effort and a solid third quarter from Jada Mangum. After falling into foul trouble in the second, Harlingen High was a little cautious to start the third, which allowed Harlan to move the ball around and get within seven points of the lead.
The defensive energy from Zapata and Cervantes got the Lady Cardinals back in a rhythm, and they maintained a 39-28 advantage heading to the final quarter. Zapata's all-out approach led to her drawing two offensive charge fouls against Harlan as she put her body on the line for her team.
"We just said that we needed to keep control of the pace and keep control of the game, and we needed to make defensive stops. Bottom line is it's about defense," Moncivaiz said.
Hinojosa (14 points) had a big fourth quarter as she showed off her offensive skillset to secure the win. She got the raucous Harlingen High crowd on its feet with five straight points to open the final frame. Salas showed off her soft touch from the paint throughout the contest, scoring 10 points and hitting some energizing shots.
Conley (23), Gallegos (14), Mangum, Jarrett and Ariyel Gordon kept Harlan competitive, and sparked scoring runs with good defense and by tirelessly attacking the rim. The Lady Hawks made six trips to the charity stripe and were 10-for-11 on free throws during the fourth quarter.
But even with fouls being an issue, Harlingen High's defense made stops and sealed the win. Cervantes (eight), Portillo (11) and Zapata (11) were especially disruptive at the top of the half-court setup.
Zapata was emotional after the win, and expressed pride for her teammates and their fans for capturing this big victory.
"It feels really great because we needed that opportunity to go to Round 3 again. We just pushed ourselves, we couldn't give up or anything, we knew it was our game to win," Zapata said. "The crowd put it all together, and it was just a heck of a game. We just needed to push ourselves and fix our defense, because defense was the key to the game."