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It was a loss that bugged the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team for some time.
Last season, the Hilltoppers seemed to be well on their way to knocking off the Santa Fe Demons in an early season road contest. But things started to fall apart in the fourth quarter and the Demons mounted a strong comeback.
Instead of picking up what might have been a big road victory, Los Alamos had to settle for a 67-62 loss.
But Saturday night in the rematch between the two teams, Los Alamos was determined not to let history repeat itself, even after Santa Fe looked like it might be trying to mount another fourth quarter rally.
Instead, the Hilltoppers countered the Demons’ push with an impressive 12-0 run during the middle portion of the final quarter, rolling to a 78-58 victory at Griffith Gymnasium.
Los Alamos forced a pair of key Santa Fe turnovers and hit 15 of 18 chances from the foul line.
“It was just a big game because of what happened last year,” Hilltopper forward Austin Wolstein said. “We had to put this one in the bag.”
After a big third quarter, in which Los Alamos outscored Santa Fe 23-8 to break open what had been a close ballgame up to that point, it appeared the rout was on.
But Santa Fe’s Michael Dean came alive in the early part of the fourth quarter after a pretty quiet first three quarters. Dean scored 15 of his 17 points in the final eight minutes, including a nifty steal-and-bucket in the Hilltoppers’ backcourt to cut the Los Alamos advantage to just 10 points.
That would be the last hurrah of the contest for the Demons, however.
Getting big showings from Wolstein, Brandon Owens and Wade Archuleta, Los Alamos turned the game around in a hurry, going on the big run that stretched 3:30 that sent the Demons reeling.
“The big guys came in and took control of the boards,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “We’ve got to have that extra contribution. Those guys have to help out.”
Los Alamos was well north of 70 points for the second time in as many outings this season, something Kirk has stressed needs to happen often in order for his team to be successful.
The Hillltoppers put four players in double-figures, including Wolstein with 14, Owens with 13 and Archuleta with 10. Guard Zach Parks added eight points Saturday.
And, of course, Alex Kirk had another big game.
Kirk, Los Alamos’ all-everything big man, poured in 31 points, 21 of those coming after the half, and collected a team-high 15 rebounds.
Kirk had six points in the third quarter off putbacks down low to help move the Hilltoppers out from a four-point lead at the break to a 19-point edge heading into the final quarter.
He finished the game hitting 10 of 12 shots from the floor and going 10 of 13 from the foul line. On the other end of the floor, he collected four blocks.
Los Alamos led from start-to-finish Saturday night. It jumped out to a 7-0 lead, getting quick buckets from Owens — a junior who had perhaps the best game of his career to date, one which also included eight rebounds — and Parks.
Santa Fe, which is led by longtime northern New Mexico coach Lenny Roybal, didn’t seem fazed by the early deficit, however, and would trim the lead down to just one midway through the second quarter.
The game got chippy during the second quarter with a scrum under the Santa Fe basket for a loose ball and then a hard foul by Parks on Mario Herrera which resulted in some grousing, some pushing and shoving, and technical fouls slapped on both players.
But Wolstein, who finished with a double-double, grabbing 12 rebounds Saturday, said it was the desire by the Hilltoppers to avoid another disappointing finish against Santa Fe that really spurred them on in the second half.
Los Alamos (2-0) now has a pair of home wins against solid teams and is feeling good heading into a Tuesday home meeting with Moriarty.
“It was good. It put us one step forward,” Wolstein said. “It’s two more wins to put us ahead. Two games on the road to state.”