GIRLS HOOPS: Mustangs hang on for win over rival Balers

Gilroy's Ashlee Williams drives down the court for a shot as San

When the smoke cleared, the Mustangs staved off an inspired
comeback by the Balers for a 49-44 victory in Tri-County Athletic
League action Thursday night in Gilroy.
A ho-hum first half gave way to an all out barnburner in the second as two rivals went back-and-forth in a scintillating final period.

Was that really an early-January game or the Central Coast Section championship? At times it seemed hard to distinguish.

With an uncanny familiarity of the other evident throughout – a proverbial chess match on the hardwood – the Gilroy High and San Benito High girls basketball teams engaged in one of more entertaining tilts of the young season.

When the smoke cleared, the Mustangs staved off an inspired comeback by the Balers for a 49-44 victory in Tri-County Athletic League action Thursday night in Gilroy.

“Hollister is always really competitive. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game and we had to be strong,” GHS senior Ashley Lambert said.

The madness began with the Balers down by 11 points midway through the third quarter. But as if San Benito head coach David Kaplansky had a light switch hooked up to more intensity, the Balers smothering defense awoke in a flash and gave the Mustangs fits, propelling the visitors on a 10-0 run to close the period.

The lead changed hands fives times in the fourth quarter and remained tied as late as the 3:42 mark. Cyrena Salinas hit a 3-pointer get things all square at 36-36 and Jackie Echaorre gave the Balers their first lead 38-36. But Dani Hemeon’s trey put the Mustangs back on top by one. The lead flip-flopped twice more before Nicole Rianda converted a nifty lay-in under the hoop to knot matters at 44-44.

That’s when Gilroy’s Chelsea Hill took over.

“She really raised her game up when the team needed her,” Kaplansky said.

Two straight blocks on the defensive end by the Mustangs’ leading scorer led to five consecutive points, including a 3-pointer to extend the Mustangs’ lead to five with 1:18 to play, essentially sealing the win as neither team added to the total the rest of the way.

“She has been our defensive anchor,” GHS head coach Tim Jones said. “She does a lot of things on defense that we really depend on.”

The triumph sends the Mustangs to 11-1 overall and 2-0 in the TCAL, while the loss leaves the Balers at 8-6 and 0-2 in league.

Though the contest sent the two teams in opposite directions in the win-loss column, the game served as a learning tool for both coaches.

“It’s a loss and we aren’t satisfied with it, but we made some big strides tonight and I’m really proud of our performance,” said Kaplansky, whose Balers have been through a juggernaut of a schedule over the past week and a half. “To say that I’m satisfied with a loss is difficult, but we did make a big jump tonight. It really showed yesterday in our practice. The kids came out with a sense of urgency and I felt like it carried over today.”

On the other side of the coin, after a relatively easy league opener against Alvarez, Jones and the Mustangs got a taste of quality basketball, which they will encounter once again Tuesday at defending league champ North Salinas.

“I think the biggest thing that we learned coming out of tonight was that we are going to play close games and you cannot panic, can’t start going, ‘what are we going to do, what are we going to do,'” Jones said. “One thing you have to do is take care of the basketball. There were too many turnovers in critical positions and those types of things have to stop.”

The Mustangs stepped out to a 7-0 lead before the Balers registered their first points of the ball game with 2:40 to go in the opening quarter.

Rianda became go-to in the post as the Balers kept within reach in the second quarter and back-to-back buckets by the senior narrowed what was an 11-point deficit to six points. But Mustangs’ center Ashlee Williams utilized her presence in the key and hit two lay-ups to tweak the advantage back up to 10 at 21-11.

Five straight points by Mari Vallejo sent the Balers into the locker room down by just six, 27-21, injecting some momentum into the team.

“I started to see some openings on offense and defense, so I switched to the zone press and that gave us some opportunities and caused some trouble,” Kaplansky said.

The adjustments began to pay off out of the break and ultimately segued into the Balers outscoring GHS 12-7 in the third quarter. A Salinas lay-up at the buzzer made it 34-33 GHS and set the table for the thrilling finish.

“It’s a rivalry game and you know both teams are going to come with a lot of emotion. I think in the first half we thought it was going to be easy. We let them back in the game and they seized that moment,” Jones said. “But at home, you hope you can push through that. And we did.”

Hill’s 13 points led the way for GHS, while Rianda’s 15 points was the Balers’ team-high. Williams and Sosa had 11 and 10 points, respectively, for the Mustangs. Salinas and Kelsey Robledo each had eight points for the Balers.

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