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It was nearly a stunning upset. It was nearly a game that could’ve instantly reversed the Hilltoppers’ fortunes.
Clawing back from an 11-point deficit at the half Friday night, Los Alamos’ boys basketball team dropped in 19 third quarter points, one of its most productive quarters of the season.
But with 3.0 seconds remaining, Los Alamos star Nick Baker was whistled for a ticky-tack foul at the baseline. Capital Jaguar veteran Mikey Lopez hit two free throws and Daniel Salazar’s desperation 3-pointer from half court just sailed wide of the bucket as the Jaguars escaped Griffith Gymnasium with a 52-50 victory.
Los Alamos, in need of a boost heading into the second half of the District 2-4A season, might have found it anyway taking a top-tier Class 4A team like Capital down to the wire, but a victory over the Jaguars certainly would’ve fit that bill.
“It’s frustrating,” said Hilltopper senior Thomas Russell. “I think we’re about four possessions away from being 4-0 (in district). Our demeanor’s down because we lost a close one. We had the No. 4 team in the state on the ropes. We’ve got to come back and we’ve got to be ready for Bernalillo.”
Los Alamos has held a second half lead in every one of its four district games to date, but has just one win to show for it. Its three district losses — the other two were to Bernalillo and Española Valley — have been by a combined total of nine points.
The scenario in each game has been the same, however. The Hilltoppers (7-14 overall) fell behind in the first half, spent much of the second half coming back to take the lead, but couldn’t find the winning points at the end.
On the other side, the Jaguars (16-4, 3-0), who are sitting alone atop the district, haven’t been crushing their competition despite their success. Bernalillo gave the Jaguars a run for their money earlier this week in Santa Fe, with the Jaguars winning that game 78-74.
Capital, while it doesn’t tower over anybody, has a lot of wide bodies in the paint, but Friday night the Hilltoppers were able to penetrate and get some rebounds, taking advantage of its marked speed advantage.
Russell, who had 11 of his team-high 16 points during the second half rally, found success cutting through the lane and, when the Jaguars closed up some of those gaps in the key, was able to come in from the wing or down the baseline for points.
Los Alamos found its stroke in the second half, connecting on 8 of 12 shots from the floor in the third quarter, dropping in a total of 19 points. Los Alamos hit just 4 of 23 from the field (17.4 percent) in the first half.
“We know we can play with these guys,” Hilltopper head coach Fil Dominguez said. “It’s tougher to beat someone at home, but we can if we take care of the mini-wars, getting to 50-50 balls, rebound better, but we dig ourselves in a hole and we have to work extra hard to get back. We’ve got to stop getting ourselves in those holes.”
In the first half, Capital, a good-shooting team, was slowed somewhat by the Hilltopper defense. Still, Capital’s Christian Martinez was able to hit some mid-range jumpers to finish with 10 first-half points.
Capital also displayed good offensive balance, with four players connecting on multiple buckets as the Jaguars pulled out to a 24-13 lead at the break.
But Los Alamos, which had most of its limited success from the outside in the first half, was able to sneak in behind the big bodies of Lopez and Taylor Martinez.
Forward Bobby Sanders hit five straight shots in the second half, including three putback buckets, the second coming at the third quarter buzzer when he ran down a 3-point attempt from the other end of the court to give Los Alamos a 32-31 lead heading into the final eight minutes.
The two teams battled back and forth in the fourth quarter, which included six lead changes. Russell hit a 3-pointer from the right corner with 3:17 remaining, countering Christian Martinez’s 3-point play on the other end of the court, temporarily giving the Hilltoppers a 42-41 lead.
Los Alamos led 50-47 with under a minute remaining, but Lopez’s 3-pointer with 48 seconds left tied the score for third time in the quarter.
The Hilltoppers misfired on their next time down the court with about 15 seconds left. The Jaguars got the ball to Lopez near the baseline but Lopez, who looked to have gotten too far behind the basket, took an awkward jumper.
On the attempt, however Baker was called for his fifth foul for hitting Lopez on the body, a questionable call at best.
Dominguez said that, despite the disappointing finish, he was proud of the effort.
“One thing I’ve said about these kids all year is that I hope my whole career I can coach kinds with the heart these guys have. We adjusted to their defense. We knocked down shots in the second half. There’s no quit in them.”
Christian Martinez finished with 17 points to lead all scores, while Lopez added 13. Lopez’s 3-pointer to tie the score late was his only 3 of the game.
Sanders had 12 points for Los Alamos and Baker finished with nine points, all in the second half. The Jaguars did an effective job of throwing a box-and-1 defense at Baker in the first half, limiting his touches.
Despite the effort, the Hilltoppers are still languishing in fourth place in district and will need a big push in the second half of district play – Los Alamos will host Bernalillo and Española Valley in the next go-round – to set themselves up for a better district seeding. The Hilltoppers finished fourth in the regular season district standings last year and were knocked out in the district tournament quarterfinals by Santa Fe.
Russell said he thinks if the team can change its mindset heading into those contests, it should be able to pull out some of those wins.
“Focus before the game and in warm-ups. The first half, we never come out ready to play,” Russell said. “We have to get the first punch and get them in panic mode...we need to do that with every single team.”