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ALBUQUERQUE — While Alan Kirk, head coach of the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team, praised his squad for its second half comeback Wednesday, it wasn’t enough to make up for a disastrous first half.
Los Alamos fell behind by 18 points after the first two quarters to the Artesia Bulldogs Wednesday. While Los Alamos was able to slice that lead down to just seven at one point, Artesia still escaped with a 69-58 win.
Wednesday’s game was the quarterfinal round of the 2008-09 state Class AAAA playoffs. For the third straight year, the Hilltoppers ended their season in the quarterfinals at University Arena and for the second time in those three seasons, it was the Bulldogs who bumped them out.
The loss was unfortunate on many levels, not the least of which was that a favorable semifinal match-up awaiting Wednesday’s winner. Artesia will face Española Valley, the No. 1 seed, which not only was upset at the 2007-08 semifinal but had a knock-down, drag-out fight Wednesday night in topping the St. Pius X Sartans, 54-51.
“We came out slow,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “We probably didn’t prepare ourselves mentally as well as we should have.”
Both teams started the first quarter off slowly, missing several open shots and turning the ball over. But Artesia was able to put things together before Los Alamos, going on an 11-2 run over the final five minutes of the quarter.
The Hilltoppers managed just five points in the first eight minutes, coughing the ball up six times.
Wednesday’s game offered the state a look at two of the top players in Class AAAA, Los Alamos’ Alex Kirk and Artesia’s Derek Montoya. Neither disappointed.
Montoya, a 6-foot, 3-inch guard, played mostly in the post Wednesday, occasionally drifting out to a wing spot.
But Montoya was solid in the lane all game and outstanding leading the Bulldog fast break. He finished 8-for-13 and dropped in a team-high 24 points.
Following the contest, Montoya said things were brutal down low.
“We haven’t faced anything like that ever,” said the senior. “You have to use a lot of ball- and head-fakes. You have to work hard even to get the ball inside.”
Meanwhile, Kirk scored a season-high 39 points, 27 of those coming in the second half as the Hilltoppers charged out of the locker room in the second half to cut deep into the Bulldog advantage.
Kirk led the comeback attempt, scoring 13 points in the third quarter. His bucket-and-foul 3-point play with 4:51 remaining cut Artesia’s lead to just 38-30.
Kirk, who is a strong Division-I college prospect and has garnered much attention throughout the season, said Wednesday’s game was a challenge for him, going against both Montoya and forward Dallas Bollema.
“They’re both strong,” he said. “The middle linebacker (Bollema) is strong, Derek is strong. It was tough. I just got in there and did what I had to do.”
Both Montoya and Bollema were also standout players for the powerful Artesia football team.
Kirk also finished with 14 rebounds and five blocked shots.
But while the Hilltoppers were able to get extra offensive support for Kirk in their 48-41 opening round win against Farmington, that help in the quarterfinals was hard to find.
Only four Hilltoppers got into the scoring column. After Kirk’s 39, senior guards Doug Hardy and Jack Russell combined for 17 points and junior guard Zach Parks finished with two.
The Hilltoppers finished with a 50 percent shooting mark (23 of 46) with Kirk connecting on 16 of 23 attempts and Hardy going 4 of 8.
But the 15 turnovers and the Bulldogs’ ability to convert those on the other end were big problems for Los Alamos throughout.
“Their pressure, that’s nothing new,” Hardy said afterward. “The second half, we were able to get the ball over the top of their pressure more. We were able to move the ball better. That helped.”
After three quarters, the Hilltoppers managed to cut the Bulldog lead in half.
Bollema finished with 20 points and Sergio Arias, who helped seal the victory for Artesia (21-8) with three straight buckets to open the fourth quarter, had 15 points.
It was a disappointing finish for the Hilltoppers, who end the season with a mark of 20-10. The Hilltoppers thought this might be their year to make a serious run at a state title, their second of the decade — they won the AAA title in 2000.
“We had a chance this year,” Hardy said. We did everything we could. We wanted to go further, but we played hard.”
Wednesday’s loss ended the prep careers of four Hilltopper seniors, Hardy, Russell, Corey Clark and Michael Helland.