WATSONVILLE — The Watsonville High Wildcatz might be the favorites to win the Monterey Bay League Pacific division title, but two games into the season it is apparent that no team from the division will roll over for them.
A handful of days after escaping with a six-point win over cross-city rival Pajaro Valley High in their league opener, the Wildcatz had to fight for a full 32 minutes to notch their second MBL-P win of the season, a 39-32 victory over Alvarez High on Tuesday night at home.
“There’s parity in this league,” said Watsonville head coach Randy Braga. “Against every team, it’s a dogfight.”
Watsonville (10-4, 2-0) led by 10 with a little more than six minutes left but Alvarez (5-6, 2-1) battled back to make it a one-point game with 4:14 remaining.
Evelyn Rios stepped up down the stretch. Watsonville’s senior guard scored eight of her game-high 17 points in the fourth quarter, and came up with a trio of clutch steals in the closing minutes to keep her team chugging through the early season.
“We just had to play with all heart, and that’s what we did in the fourth quarter,” Rios said. “We’re all around the same level. It’s just the drive that makes the difference. Who wants it more in the fourth quarter?”
After jumping out to a 24-15 lead at halftime on Julisa Vega’s buzzer-beating hook shot, Watsonville struggled to score the ball.
Vega, a 6-foot-2 senior center, was held scoreless over the final two quarters after scoring a team-high eight points in the first half, and senior point guard Savanah Quintana hit only one shot after the intermission.
Quintana, Watsonville’s usual leading scorer, had nine points. Senior wing Jackie Barocio chipped in five.
The Wildcatz missed open looks, but the Eagles’ defense was also suffocating their shooters and dominating the boards.
“They anticipated really well and they knew who the shooters were,” Rios said. “They had a good feel for what we wanted to do.”
With starting forward Ruby Galvan out, freshman Andreina Lopes got the start. Lopes and juniors Aaliyah Johnson and Jenny Vasquez provided Watsonville with solid minutes, but none could replace Galvan’s usual scoring or rebounding punch.
Working with a shallow bench, Braga’s starting five played a majority of the game. The limited rest, coupled with Alvarez’s fast-paced attack, left Watsonville gassed during the second half.
The Eagles went on a 7-0 run out of the break to make it a two-point game with 3:20 left in the third, but the Wildcatz had just enough juice to respond with a 7-0 run of their own in the moments before the final stanza.
Watsonville led by eight at the start of the fourth. Rios sunk a pair from the charity stripe to make it a double-digit advantage, but Alvarez chipped away over the next two minutes to come within one.
That’s as far as the Eagles would come.
Rios swished another pair of free throws, banked in a floater and made a transition layup to put the Wildcatz up seven.
Her offense gave Watsonville some breathing room, and her defense sealed it.
“She’s really turned the corner,” Braga said of Rios. “Those free throws were clutch. We’ve really worked, and I’ve talked to her a lot. She’s her worst critic, so she gets in her head a bit. As long as she can stay focused, she’s a phenomenal player.”
Still undefeated, Watsonville, which last year finished tied for second in the MBL-P, seems to be on a collision course with Notre Dame-Salinas, which is also undefeated through its initial action in league.
The two will meet on Jan. 16 in Salinas at 7 p.m.
First, the Wildcatz will host Monterey High on Thursday at 7 p.m.