Vista Ridge guard Nikki Cardano-Hillary shook off an environment-induced cold shooting start then responded with the zest and commitment that draws college scouts and coaches alike to watch the 5-foot-7 senior lead the Rangers past Westlake Friday night 53-42.
That the state-ranked Rangers prevailed was not the only story Friday night.
An issue with the newly re-finished Westlake Fieldhouse floor resulted in the floor sweating and becoming dangerously slick when the heaters were turned on, so they remained off throughout the afternoon and the game.
“You both have the same conditions and they were doing all they could (Westlake staff) but it was downright cold out there tonight,” Vista Ridge coach Keith Allen said.
With the outside temperatures hovering below 40 degrees, the gym was not much warmer. As the Rangers peeled off their sweats, goose bumps were evident.
Cardano-Hillary’s first three shots were short of the rim then four more shots clanged off the iron as Westlake took a 7-0 lead and was ahead 14-11 after the first quarter.
Taking matters into her lightning quick hands, Cardano-Hillary opened the second quarter with four steals as the Rangers posted an 11-0 run to take a 22-14 lead before ubiquitous guard picked up her third foul midway through the period and went to the bench with Vista Ridge leading by eight.
However, with Cardano-Hillary on the bench, Westlake rallied to trail by three points 24-21 at the half.
“I knew that the second half was a new game and cold or not, it was my job to push the ball,” Cardano-Hillary said.
Vista Ridge shook off the Chaps as Cardona-Hillary finished with 26 points, eight steals, seven assists and six rebounds as Vista Ridge won going away to improve to 15-2 on the season and 2-0 in the district.
While the cold weather and frigid gym conditions were unfortunate, that Cardano-Hillary was unfazed came as no surprise to Allen.
“Nikki is so determined, so committed, she is a wonderful student-athlete, a great young lady and an intense competitor,” Allen said.
Cardano-Hillary came to Texas from Madrid, Spain in middle school and attended Henry before matriculating to Vista Ridge where she has played a key two in two consecutive state tournament appearances and now, in Class 6A, a state top 10 ranking.
“My sister and I were born in Spain, but my parents wanted us to go to high school in the states, so we move back here,” she said.
She has committed to George Mason University where she plans on majoring in International Affairs and Criminal Justice.
“Just like Vista Ridge felt right when we move here, George Mason was just a great fit,” Cardano-Hillary said. “The academics, the coach, the girls on the team, and I am really looking forward to college.”
In terms of basketball comparison, Cardano-Hillary, who began playing competitive basketball as a third grader, indicated that basketball is a well-regarded sport in Spain. However, levels of competition vary widely.
“Here there are lots of good teams and the high schools are very competitive,” she said. “In Spain, you have to find the more competitive programs and look at the big (areas).”
Cardano-Hillary’s Spanish is Castilian, a dialect of the language spoken in northern and central Spain, as she grew up in Madrid and her food tastes have remained from the country.
“I just like all Spanish food, especially paella, Chuletas de Cordero, Jamón serrano and much more,” she said.
When not fully engaged in competitive basketball, the senior finds time for hiking and skiing and is a bit melancholy about her senior season. But she still hopes the Rangers have a long season ahead of them.
“This has been such a wonderful experience, I will certainly remember these days fondly,” Cardano-Hillary said.