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Most times when they get together, the Capital Jaguars give the Los Alamos Hilltoppers fits.
Thursday night was no exception.
The Jaguars’ boys basketball team led by eight points at the half and as many as nine early in the third quarter, but the Hilltoppers got back to doing what they do best and took a 55-47 victory Thursday night at Griffith Gymnasium.
With the win, Los Alamos will advance to tonight’s District 2AAAA championship game at Española Valley where it will face the district regular season champion Sundevils. Tonight’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m., tickets for which go on sale at 3 p.m. at Española Valley’s box office.
Thursday’s game was the fourth meeting between Los Alamos and Capital, with the two teams splitting their meetings.
But with an 18-7 edge in the fourth quarter, the Hilltoppers earned wins in their final two meetings and the most important of the four.
“We’ve come back before,” Hilltopper guard Jack Russell said. “We always have. We usually have one good half. Capital’s a good team and they’re going to surprise a lot of people at state.”
Los Alamos guard Corey Clark’s fast break bucket at the exact midpoint of the fourth quarter gave the Hilltoppers their first lead since the opening 1:15 of the game.
With the score tied at 45, the Hilltoppers’ brightest star, center Alex Kirk, stepped in front of a pass on the Jaguars’ wing and pushed the ball more than passed it to Clark streaking down the middle of the court. Clark outran a retreating Capital player to score the basket and give the Hilltoppers the lead they would never surrender.
“We talked a lot about defense at halftime,” Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said. “We weren’t rebounding, we were giving (the Jaguars) way too many second chances in the first half. I thought we were playing soft, not as aggressive as we should’ve. We had a lot of opportunities to attack the basket in the first half and we’d pull back instead. That hesitancy carried over to our defense.”
The loss by fourth-seeded Capital (15-13 overall, 3-6 in 2AAAA) muddies its Class AAAA postseason outlook considerably. Because third-seeded Bernalillo, which Capital upset 52-47 Tuesday to advance to Thursday’s 2AAAA semifinal, must be taken and seeded higher than the Jaguars when at-large bids are handed out Sunday, the Jaguars could be left out in the cold.
Los Alamos (19-8 overall, 7-2 in 2AAAA) hasn’t yet clinched a berth in the postseason — it will should it beat Española Valley tonight — but will assuredly be invited and will very likely be in the upper half of the AAAA championship bracket. Regardless of tonight’s outcome, however, the Hilltoppers will have to go in as a lower seed than the Sundevils by virtue of the Sundevils’ regular season district championship.
Kirk, along with the steal and assist that helped turn Los Alamos’ fortunes around Thursday, also dropped in a game-high 21 points. Kirk went 8-for-14 from the field and 4-for-5 from the free throw line to spearhead the offensive effort.
With the Hilltoppers down 40-37 to start the fourth quarter, they came out attacking the Jaguars’ basket and went to the free throw line 12 times in the final period. The Hilltoppers converted 10 of those chances.
On the other side of the court, however, the Jaguars were also aggressively going to the hoop and earned seven foul shots. But, unlike Los Alamos, the Jaguars misfired on six of those attempts.
Russell converted on both of his free throws with 1:12 remaining in regulation, giving the Hilltoppers a 52-45 lead and effectively sealing the game.
“We shot really well in the beginning of the season,” Russell said of his team’s performance at the charity stripe. “In the middle of the season we didn’t. We practiced and practiced. They’re starting to come back.”
Capital actually hit more field goals Thursday (20) than did Los Alamos (18), but Los Alamos’ 17-3 edge in converted free throws proved to be the difference.
Capital, possibly sensing that its postseason stock could well hang in the balance Thursday, jumped out to a quick 11-7 lead, reeling off an 8-2 run stretch in the first quarter.
The Jaguars closed out the second quarter with a 10-2 spurt, hitting a pair of 3-pointers late, one by Deven Bolich and one by Albert Prada, upping their advantage to 31-23 at the break.
But Los Alamos’ defense stiffened in the second half, allowing just three Capital field goals in the third quarter.
Jonathan Rodriguez, a sophomore, paced the Jaguars with 12 points. No other Jaguar finished with more than seven.
Clark had 10 points for the Hilltoppers, going 6 of 8 from the foul line. Michael Helland and Zach Parks finished with seven points.
“Capital is always a very strong, aggressive team,” Kirk said. “They’re not as tall this year, they execute very well. They don’t run a lot of things, but the things they run they run very well.”