WASHINGTON HIGH SCHOOL — During the break between the first and second quarter on Tuesday, Mission Bears head coach Arnold Zelaya laid into his team, who had dug themselves a 13-point hole in the first eight minutes of play.
It had been three years since the Bears had lost to the hosting Washington Eagles and Zelaya had no plans of snapping that streak on Tuesday night.
“Letting down all of the past teams, I couldn’t imagine letting that happen,” said Bears starting guard Andre Villarino. “Coach Z really pumped us up after that first quarter. He told us to keep fighting.”
With Zelaya’s message fully absorbed, Mission was able to flip the double-digit deficit into a 16-point victory on Tuesday, beating Washington in their own home gym, 79-63, and pushing their Aacademic Athletic Association winning streak to 45 games.
“Sometimes it’s a little tough to get going off of the bat,” Zelaya said. “Once you dig yourselves a hole, you’ve got to grind it out with energy. They did a good job of getting out of it.”
Four nights earlier, while facing the league-leading Lincoln Mustangs, Mission came out with what Zelaya called a “locked-in mentality,” building a 17-point advantage by the end of the first quarter.
Against Washington, who entered Tuesday night with a 9-11 record, Mission failed to come out with the same engagement and physicality.
Giving too much space for Zelaya’s liking, Mission allowed Eagles shooters to knock down five 3-pointers, and score 25 points in the first quarter.
“Those guys can shoot the ball pretty well and I tried to warn the kids about that beforehand,” Zelaya said. “They’re dangerous.”
Eagles senior guard Jackie Luong canned three of Washington’s triples in the first quarter, and finished the first period with 11 points.
On Dec. 10, Luong scored 34 points against Mission, but the Bears were able to mitigate his efforts, holding on for a 90-86 win at Mission.
“Last time we saw him, he had some numbers that he shouldn’t have,” Bears senior guard Ben Knight said. “Tonight we tried to force him into as much discomfort as we could… He still got some good shots.”
Down 25-12 by the end of the first quarter, Zelaya brought his team together with a simple message: return to their fundamentals.
“I really told them to get right back to basics,” Zelaya said. “No traps, nothing special. Stay with your man; man to man defense. Switch when you need to switch. But really just grind it out and attack the basket. Get back to our bread and butter and we did.”
After giving up an early basket in the first few seconds of the ensuing period, Mission began to turn Zelaya’s words into actions. Over the next seven minutes, the Bears closed the gap to only four points.
Mission would also force four consecutive turnovers in the final two minutes of the period, leading to uncontested layups. It’s the discipline and aggressiveness that was initially missing from the Bears’ game.
“We preach that all the time,” Zelaya said. “Pressure, pressure, pressure without using your hands. That’s the key for us.”
Mission continued with their relentless effort in the second half, outscoring the Eagles 42-22 in third and fourth quarters combined.
Knight would lead the way for the Bears, scoring 37 points, including four threes in an encore performance from Dec. 10 when he scored 38 of the Bears’ 90 points.
“[Coach Zelaya] told us to move the ball around and that’s what we did. ‘Take great shots, not good shots,’ is what he told me.”
Despite the disappointing start to the game, Mission would wind up earning a 79-63 win over the Eagles as they flipped a 16-point deficit into t a 16-point win.
“Early in the season we were getting down big and losing by a little,” Zelaya said. “We’ve come a long way but we’re still just one time through league. We’ve still got a long way to go.”