The best way to dig yourself out of a shooting slump?
How about simply shooting your way out of it and knocking down the first three shots of the game from 3-point range in a tournament championship setting.
For Española Valley High School junior Destiny Valdez, that remedy not only did wonders for her confidence, but it helped surge the Lady Sundevils (8-4) to a 44-28 win over St. Michael’s High School on Dec. 28 at Perez-Shelley Memorial Gymnasium in the championship bout of the Lady Horsemen Christmas Tournament.
“Her confidence has been down a little bit and things like that, so this is big for her,” Española head coach Joe Estrada said about Valdez, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player. “She’s our best shooter and one of our best players and yesterday she’s talking about, ‘Hey coach, I’m not a shooter, I can’t shoot.’ I said, ‘Shoot the damn ball.’”
She certainly did in the opening minutes, and while Valdez would add just two more points along the way after her first three daggers from beyond the arc, the simple act of seeing the ball go through the net gave her one big assurance.
“Hitting a 3 and scoring the first nine points off the bat, I was like, ‘OK, I’m back,’” Valdez said. “It was very uplifting for myself on a personal level.”
On a team level, nothing was more uplifting for Española than its physical and contagious effort defensively over the game’s final quarter — which was needed to overcome a tenacious rebounding effort from the Lady Horsemen, who received countless second and third chance opportunities on possessions.
Holding a 30-26 lead after three quarters of play, the Lady Sundevils stifled the Lady Horsemen defensively over the final eight minutes, holding St. Michael’s to just two points from the free throw line all quarter while the Lady Horsemen shoot 0-of-5 from the field.
Española’s offense was also in sync more than had been all game in the fourth, as the Lady Sundevils scored 14 points and finally started to crack the 2-3 zone of St. Michael’s.
While the Lady Horsemen were ice cold, Española countered with a 6-of-11 shooting mark in the final quarter.
“They’re a good defensive team and they moved well,” Valdez said. “It kind of tested our personal IQ’s and as a team as well, because we had to find ways to get in there. Most teams, we weave, weave and we break it; they made good adjustments and they seemed to keep being one step ahead of us.”
The biggest sequence aiding the Lady Sundevils’ separation in the fourth began when Rhianna Padilla followed her own miss from 3-point range to corral the ball underneath and score a 2-pointer instead.
That bucket pushed the Lady Sundevils’ lead to 34-26 with 4:49 remaining in the game, then Valdez increased the margin to double-digits the next time down the floor, as she finished off a beautiful dish from Anita DeAguero for a layup inside while being fouled on the play.
Although missing the free throw to follow, Española would close the game with an 8-2 run from that point forward until the final buzzer.
Estrada said his team struggled to produce consistent and sustaining positions the entire weekend, but he was happy with the ball movement and more importantly, the movement without the ball, as the game progressed.
“We started to get more movement and we must get better moving without the ball because teams are starting to figure us out," he said. "Teams are starting to pack the zone and get out and guard our shooters.”
The second quarter was the most notable time when shots were falling off target, as Española hit just 2-of-11 attempts. However, St. Michael’s only scored three field goals in the quarter, which helped the Lady Sundevils survive a 7-point output to trout to the locker room with a 20-19 advantage.
Española then outscored the Lady Horsemen 10-7 in the third quarter before breaking things open in the fourth. St. Michael’s only scored one bucked from the field over the final 14 minutes of the game.
Valdez’s 11 points led the team, while Jaylynn Padilla chipped in nine (seven in the second half) and Miranda Salazar added eight. St. Michael’s was paced by 14 points from Carisa Padilla.
Before arriving in the tournament championship game, the Lady Sundevils first won two games a day prior on Dec. 27. After advancing past Santa Fe High 37-30 in a 10 a.m. matchup, the Lady Sundevils returned to the court at 4 p.m. and outlasted Pecos High School 47-45 in double overtime.
When asked how good his team was after the conclusion of the latest tournament stop, Estrada was confident in placing his Lady Sundevils among Class 4A’s best to this point.
“Our team is final four good and maybe better,” he said. “That’s not me bragging, that’s knowing what’s out there, watching scores all the time and comparing what’s out there last year and what’s coming back this year. This team is better than we were last year, and we got to the final four last year.”