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ALBUQUERQUE — Despite dropping their first three ballgames and four of their first six, the St. Pius X Sartans aren’t the three-time defending champs for nothing.
A suddenly resurgent Sartan squad was able to create enough chaos to keep the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team off-balance for most of Tuesday night’s nondistrict game at St. Sebastian Gymnasium.
Meanwhile, the Hilltoppers couldn’t generate enough steady offense outside of center Alex Kirk and couldn’t slow down St. Pius’ long-range shooting enough to pull out a win in a big midseason test. St. Pius took Tuesday’s contest 65-55.
St. Pius, which has no one that matches up very well with the 6-foot-11 Kirk, tried to double Kirk front and back for much of the contest. While Kirk still managed a healthy 28 points Tuesday, Los Alamos struggled to find support for the junior center on the offensive end.
On the other end of the court, the Sartans had the Hilltopper defense scrambling to catch up with the ball for much of the night, thanks in large part to 50 percent 3-point shooting effort. The Sartans hit on 8 of 16 chances from beyond the 3-point circle including a couple of 3s that loomed large in the endgame.
Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk, who scouted St. Pius twice prior to Tuesday’s game, said he was surprised by its outside shooting success.
“I never saw them shoot like that,” he said, especially in the first half after the Sartans drained six shots from 3-point range, four of those in the second quarter.
Los Alamos fell behind by nine points early in the fourth quarter, but a big 3-pointer by Jack Russell, which rattled around the basket several times before finally dropping, cut the St. Pius lead to 48-42.
On the ensuing St. Pius possession, however, guard Josh Lujan buried a 3-ball of his own at the 6:13 mark to bump the spread back up to nine. Los Alamos wouldn’t get any closer for the remainder of the game.
While the Sartans (8-7) had four players in double-figures, only Kirk would get into double-figures for the Hilltoppers (11-6). Russell had nine coming off the bench, seven in the second half, before fouling out with under a minute to go.
Los Alamos shot 50 percent from the floor Tuesday, but half of its 24 field goals belonged to Kirk. The other Hilltoppers shot just 38.7 percent.
“A lot of things we tried to do were working,” coach Kirk said. “Their pressure gave us some trouble, but we had some open shots. We just weren’t hitting them.”
The Hilltoppers trailed the Sartans 32-28 at the break, putting together a 7-2 run with just over two minutes to play in the first half sparked by a Park’s 3-pointer. That run answered a 10-1 Sartan run midway through the quarter.
In the third quarter, however, the Hilltoppers managed just nine points, squandering a good defensive effort which allowed the Sartans just 13 points, their lowest output of the game.
Following the game, St. Pius head coach Damian Segura said that he thought his team would need to create as much havoc as it could if it wanted to win.
“We had to make it a 94-foot game when you have a guy like Alex Kirk who’s so dominant on the inside,” Segura said. “Alex does a real good job of creating opportunities for other people. We needed to pressure their guards as much as we could.”
The strategy worked, especially in the middle quarters when St. Pius forced 12 Los Alamos turnovers. Moreover, St. Pius was able to outrun Los Alamos to a lot of loose balls and long rebounds.
Even with an unimpressive win-loss record up to this point in the season, it’s a safe bet that few Class AAAA teams are taking the Sartans lightly.
“We graduated 87 percent of our scoring from last year,” Seguara said. “We had seven seniors on the squad with 18 state championship rings between them. It’s going to take some steps forward, but it’s fun working with a blue collar group like this.”
Gerald Bourguet had 15 points for St. Pius while Ryan Myers added 11. Jacob Garcia had all of his 10 points in the fourth quarter to help seal his team’s win.
Zach Parks finished with seven points Tuesday. No other Hilltopper had more than five.
Kirk was 12 of 17 from the floor, He also finished with 12 rebounds — six on the offensive end — and blocked five shots.
The pressure was on Kirk in more ways than one Tuesday. Not only was he trying to help his squad earn what would’ve been arguably its biggest win of the nondistrict season, he was doing so in front of scouts from no less than five Division 1 colleges — UCLA, Texas Tech, California, Arizona State and New Mexico.
Kirk has been scouted by colleges since midway through last season and is ranked as one of the top prep big men in the country by several outlets, not the least of which being ESPN.com.
Numerous D-I schools have already scouted Kirk this season — teams like UNM were scouting him as early as last season.
With Tuesday’s loss, Los Alamos has dropped three of its last four contests. Most troubling, however, is that all three losses have come against Class AAAA opponents, including a loss in a nondistrict contest to Capital, which Los Alamos will face twice during the district season.
“I think we’re disappointed,” coach Kirk said. “We dropped a couple of game we could’ve won. We’ve got to look at ourselves and start asking why some of these games are getting away … I still think we’re in control of our own destiny. If we decide we’re going to come out and play, come out and work hard, I think we’ll be successful.”