East Central reaches postseason despite loss
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Perhaps the best measure of what Tiffani Rodriguez means to Southwest was on display Friday at the Dragons’ gym, when her teammates came together to stave off a potential upset bid from East Central.
With Southwest’s senior captain, sidelined with the flu for all but about eight minutes of her last home game, the Dragons (23-9, 6-3) had no shortage of volunteers willing to shoulder the scoring and defensive burdens. They closed the Senior Night game on a 15-4 run to defeat the Hornets 59-46 in a District 28-5A game.
“No doubt about it,” Southwest coach Bill Avey said. “Seeing that a player with Tiff’s abilities is willing to share the ball has helped them defer to their teammates. I think, at a certain point, they realized that Tiff wasn’t going to walk on the court, and that they needed to do it themselves.”
In an unusual turn of events, both teams qualified for the playoffs Friday. Brackenridge, Harlandale, Highlands, Lanier, Sam Houston and Southside are the other current playoff qualifiers.
Southwest cemented third place in the district with the win. Despite the loss, East Central (10-18, 3-6) benefited from the two other district games Friday. Corpus Christi Carroll eliminated Corpus Christi King (12-15, 1-8) from consideration 55-36 . District-leading Steele squelched South San’s playoff hopes, defeating the Bobcats (10-20, 1-8) 72-17.
“We’ve been talking about that,” first-year East Central coach Ginger Hartman said of playing with playoff intensity. “I’m proud of them. They played hard. They did everything we talked about this week.”
While Rodriguez was largely unavailable to Southwest, East Central had to cope with having its top two scorers, freshman Brittany Rodgers and sophomore Janik Alexander-Smith, in foul trouble. Nonetheless, the Hornets were within 44-42 with 6:09 remaining when Rodgers (11 points) took a defensive rebound the length of the court for a basket and Claudia Flores made two of three free throws.
Southwest junior guard Jenyl Henry, who scored eight of her 13 points in the fourth quarter, responded with a three-point play and three-point basket on consecutive Dragons possessions for an instant eight-point lead. Southwest made three of four free throws and outscored the Hornets 9-4 over the last five minutes to seal the win.
“That was the No. 1 thing,” Henry said of winning for Rodriguez. “Tiff has had such a great career. It was so tough that she was sick for Senior Night. We all pulled together.”
Rodriguez finished with two points, which increased her career total to 2,130. She is the fourth 2,000-point scorer Avey has coached in 17 years at Incarnate Word and Southwest.
“To have a four-year varsity starter, that’s pretty amazing,” the 10th-year Dragons coach said. “Her role has changed throughout her career, and she’s done everything we’ve asked of her. I felt bad for her tonight, but she wanted to give it a shot.
“She’s probably been our best all-around player. She has the ability to play defense, score and dish assists. For four straight years, she’s gotten our purple heart award for taking the most charges.”
Alexandra Busby led Southwest with 21 points. She picked up the scoring slack in the second quarter with seven points, including a three-point basket with 1:19 until the half that put the Dragons in the lead. Busby had 12 first-half points, helping Southwest to a 28-26 lead.
“She’s going to be an offensive juggernaut,” Avey said. “She can really play. She didn’t start playing basketball until the seventh grade.”
East Central led 12-10 after a quarter. A jumper by Busby capped a five-point spurt for Southwest, but the Hornets’ press launched a run.
Two free throws from Taylor Lewis (12 points, 10 rebounds), a three-ponter from Savannah Avila and two more foul shots from substitute Ariel Allen provided East Central a 23-18 advantage. It was 26-23 with 2:57 until the half when Rodgers scored on a rebound.
“Taylor’s really coming on,” Hartman said. “She’s a good rebounder and a great athlete. She’s willing to do whatever you want her to.”
The Hornets stayed close early in the third quarter, tying it 21-21 on a short jumper from senior Na’Kiah Reid, one of the few returning regulars from 2012-13, and a free throw by Rodgers.
“They’re playing together,” Hartman said. “We didn’t have many players returning and they’re learning a new system, but the main thing I wanted to accomplish this year was to get everybody playing together and working hard.
“(The Dragons) hit some key shots at the end of the game, and we couldn’t get ours to drop. I have to give credit to Southwest.”
Southwest began to get contributions from more and more players as the second half wore on.
“Rebounding was pretty much the No. 1 priority for me,” said the 5-4 Henry, who collected eight boards. “I knew they were bigger than me, but I knew they outrebounded us in the first half. I tried to play with a lot of energy and box out their big girls.”
Freshman Missy Longoria grabbed a defensive rebound and assisted on a layup by Cheyenne Ortiz, after Busby broke a 34-34 lead with a three-pointer. Both posts supplied seven points.
Ortiz took a pass from freshman guard Briana Longoria increased Southwest’s lead to 44-36 with little more than two minutes left in the third quarter following a three-point play and subsequent steal from Busby.
“(East Central) almost beat us the first time,” Avey said. “We were down 13 in the second quarter. They gave us all we wanted. If we have a true rival in this district, it’s East Central.
“I give a lot of credit to East Central’s players and coaching staff. They’re doing a heck of a job.”