BY HENRY MILLER
(MERCEDES) – When the basketball postseason arrives, Rick Trevino and his Mercedes Tigers may look back on this date, Friday, Jan. 5, 2018 at approximately 2 p.m.
That’s when sophomore Jay Ayala made a play that could be a defining moment in the Tigers’ season. It sure was the defining moment in their District 32-5A game against Brownsville Lopez.
Ayala had just finished scoring the previous four points for Mercedes and the Tigers held a 52-47 lead. The Lobos were bringing the ball up the court with a little more than 90 seconds remaining when Ayala just touched the ball being dribbled by Lopez phenom Armando Pecero. Ayala got enough of the ball where Pecero lost control of it and the ball slipped away, rolling onto the Tigers side of the court.
Pecero was in a prime position to pick up the ball but Ayala dove, grabbed the ball first and called timeout before he even stopped sliding. That play, followed by a basket from Brandon Lozoya pretty much clinched a 59-49 win for the Tigers which game them their first district win of the season.
“I love that kid,” Trevino said after the game. “He’s had a hurt ankle and he’s come back and he’ll do whatever is asked of him, whatever is necessary. That was a huge play.”
Mercedes outscored Brownsville 22-14 in the deciding fourth quarter. Ayala scored four of his 14 points in the quarter, had three rebounds, an assist and that critical late steal. Jordan Ovalle led the team with 15 points, followed by Ayala’s 14 and Caleb Arthur’s 13 points.
Mercedes was also 7-for-8 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, a quarter in which all their offensive weapons seemed to be on display, from crisp passing and long-range shooting by Jared Castaneda, who was also returning from injury, the offensive prowess of Ovalle and the plays inside the paint from Ayala and Arthur.
“When we play the way we are capable, we can be a very talented team,” Trevino said. “We’re a young team though and we have moments where it gets away from us, but mistakes are going to happen.”
The Tigers took their first lead of the game early in the third quarter, 29-27, with a pair of fast-break layups from Ayala and Castaneda. The pace from the first quarter, when Brownsville Lopez grabbed a 16-4 lead with a slow, methodical set up offense, was a distant memory.
“We knew we had to pick up the pace so we pressed them,” Trevino said. “We didn’t know what to expect but I felt we would play better with a faster pace.”
The teams traded baskets for the most part in the third and early part of the fourth. Brownsville led 41-39 midway through the fourth before Mercedes took the lead for good. Anthony scored a turnaround post move, Ovalle rebounded his own missed 3-pointer for a bucket in the paint and Arthur scored off after getting his own rebound twice and Mercedes held a 45-41 lead.
The Lobos came back again to close within three. But then Castaneda hit a 3-pointer for a 48-43 lead, setting up Ayala’s hustle play to seal the victory for Mercedes. Ayala usually is called on to handle the opponent’s biggest player and is usually outsized. During one point in the second quarter, a Lopez player was called for a foul and after the play was dead drove an elbow into Ayala’s midsection. A referee saw it but didn’t call a foul or any penalty, but walked up to the player and warned him.
“This team may be young, but they have a lot of poise,” Trevino said. “I didn’t see that play but they all have great character and I’m proud of them for that.”