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Boys basketball: LA falls to Espaola Valley in front of big crowd Friday night

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By Mike Cote

In order to knock off the second-ranked team in the state, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team needed to play a flawless game Friday night.

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The third quarter of Friday’s game, however, was far less than flawless.

With the Hilltoppers playing in front of a packed house at Griffith Gymnasium Friday night, they played nearly even with the powerful Española Valley Sundevils and trailed by just four at the half.

But Los Alamos turned the ball over 10 times during the third quarter which led to 9 Sundevil fast break points. The third quarter was the turning point in the game from which Los Alamos never recovered.

Española Valley prevailed in the big District 2AAAA contest, 65-52.

Griffith Gym was virtually sold out for the game, in which the Sundevils made their first and possibly only appearance of the season.

The Sundevils, who have been among Class AAAA’s top programs for the past several seasons, may have their best top-to-bottom team this season.

Española Valley went into Friday’s game fresh off a very successful swing through the eastern part of New Mexico, knocking off two of the state’s premier Class 5A programs, Clovis and Hobbs, on consecutive nights.

Sundevil head coach Richard Martinez said his team has devoted this season to putting out maximum effort. That’s why, early in the first quarter, with the game tied, he called a timeout to bark at his starters, then pulled four of the five in favor of bench players.

“We weren’t playing hard enough,” Martinez said. “If you’re going to go in there, thinking this game is easy. If you’re going to go in there and give people little love-taps, you’re coming out. This is Quad-A. You’ve got to play hard.”

The maneuver worked. Española Valley immediately went on a 9-0 run in just a little over two minutes before its outside shooters started missing.

Los Alamos, for its part, kept good scoring balance throughout the first half and its defense kept Española Valley from making the big charges it’s known for, save the first quarter run which Los Alamos was able to recover from by holding the Sundevils to just 7 points in the second quarter.

But with the Sundevils holding on to a scant 28-24 lead at the break, they went into a heavy half-court trap to open the third quarter that the Hilltoppers simply couldn’t account for.

“We came out and we lost our composure a little bit,” Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said of the rough start to the second half. That, combined with its second straight mediocre foul shooting night – 7-for-16 as a team and 3-for-12 subtracting center Alex Kirk’s performance – didn’t help the Hilltoppers’ effort.

Although the Sundevils (19-1 overall) didn’t exactly shoot the lights out Friday, converting on just 37.1 percent of its attempts, they ran down their long shot misses all night long and gave themselves numerous second, third and even fourth or fifth chances. The Sundevils got off 70 shots on the night to the Hilltoppers’ 46 attempts.

Los Alamos (14-6 overall, 2-1 in 2AAAA) held Española Valley to just two field goals and 7 total points in the second quarter to keep pace. On offense, Zach Parks finished the first half with 7 points and Kirk dropped in 9 points.

The University of New Mexico-bound Kirk finished with 17 points, one of his lowest totals of the season. Parks, who hit a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter as Los Alamos tried to pare into Española Valley’s lead, also finished with 17 points. Both players led all other scorers.

Austin Wolstein had 8 points for the Hilltoppers and Thomas Russell picked up 7 points. Wade Archuleta finished with 8 assists.

While the Hilltoppers now trail the Sundevils (3-0 in 2AAAA) by a game, the two teams will meet once more during the regular season – Feb. 17 at Española Valley, where Los Alamos upset the heavily-favored Sundevils almost exactly a year ago – and could potentially meet at least once more in the District 2AAAA tournament in late February.

“The district race is challenging,” coach Kirk said. “It’s important to get a feel of the teams, to learn, to grow. You’re after the district tournament. You’re playing for seeding...and the goal is to get to that championship game. The goal is to host it at home.”

For Española Valley, Aaron Aragon, one of the early first quarter substitutions, led his team with 14 points, 8 of those coming during that opening quarter. Rodney Coles and Luis Alvarado, who combined with Aragon to collect six steals in the third quarter, both finished with 13 points.

NOTES: In Friday night’s other District 2AAAA contest, Bernalillo needed four overtimes to top Taos 100-98 at Bernalillo. With the win, Bernalillo improves to 1-1 in district, tying it with Capital for third place in the 2AAAA standings, while Taos drops to 0-4 in district … Capital was also in action Friday and fell at home to St. Pius X, 57-36. Friday’s loss could come back to haunt Capital at state tournament selection time as both the Jaguars (8-9) and St. Pius’ Sartans (7-12) could well be on the bubble and the Sartans would have the head-to-head victory.