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Boys basketball: LA knocked out of tourney by St. Pius, 57-50

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — Second verse, same as the first.Wednesday’s meeting was the second of the season between the Los Alamos Hilltoppers and the St. Pius X Sartans, and the two games weren’t all that different.Los Alamos held an edge for a good percentage of both games, St. Pius came back in both games, and the Sartans managed to get some breathing room and close it out at the end of both games.The difference was the stakes.The Jan. 15 meeting at Griffith Gymnasium was a nondistrict contest between a slumping Hilltoppers’ squad and one of the top-rated teams in Class AAAA. Wednesday’s game was for the right to advance to the state AAAA semifinals.St. Pius escaped University Arena, better known as The Pit, with a 57-50 win, this coming after Los Alamos led for most of the first three quarters and held a 50-47 edge late in the fourth quarter.It was a disappointing finish for shooting guard Ben Allen and point guard Nik Allen’s careers.“We had it and we let it slip out, not taking care of the ball,” Ben Allen said following Wednesday’s loss, which knocked the ’Toppers out of the state bracket and closed the curtains on the careers of two players who will surely go down in the lore of Los Alamos High School basketball.Both had a solid outing Wednesday, exactly as one might expect. Nik Allen led the Hilltoppers — along with center Alex Kirk — scoring 12 points, while Ben Allen dropped in 11 points. Nik finished with five assists and three rebounds, while Ben had four rebounds and three assists.Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk made no bones about what the duo meant to his squad during the 2007-2008 season.“These two seniors stepped up; they led us all year,” he said. “They’re probably the most underrated guards in the state. When we needed scoring, they gave us scoring. When we needed defense, they gave us defense.”While the Hilltoppers saw the end of the careers of the Allens Wednesday morning, they saw throughout the course of the season the emergence of a star.Alex Kirk, who at 6-foot-9 is hard to miss, became one of the best players northern New Mexico had to offer this season, and he made his presence felt Wednesday with 12 points and 10 rebounds, both team highs.But the Sartans proved to be too much for the Hilltoppers, who end their season with a mark of 19-11.Chris Johansen, St. Pius’ athletically-gifted forward, put up one of the most impressive stat lines of the tournament: 21 points, 18 rebounds, 9 of 13 from the floor.Johansen’s baseline drive to the hoop against Kirk, pitting the game’s two marquee players against one another head-to-head with elimination for one of them on the line, was maybe three seconds worth of playing time, but it was a breathless three seconds for the decent 8 a.m. crowd at University Arena.Johansen won that battle, putting in a beautiful layup with 1:17 left to give St. Pius a 51-50 lead it would never surrender.The turning point of the game came late in the first half, however.With St. Pius struggling on offense, Nik Allen picked up two quick fouls, giving him three altogether. Allen, one of the best defenders in the state, had to sit the remainder of the half, during which time the Sartans clawed their way back into the game, turning what was a 9-point deficit down to 3 by the break.“Anytime one of (the Allens) is out, it’s much easier to guard,” St. Pius head coach Damian Segura said after the game. “You basically just have to guard one side of the floor instead of the other side.”Nik Allen said afterward that a team wanting to beat St. Pius needs to play clean basketball. If not, it spells trouble.“They don’t give away any games,” he said. “We had to play the whole time to beat them. That’s why we lost.”Wednesday’s game was also the finale for seniors Martin Romero, Chris Hejde, Matthew Leyba, Mike Matteson and Alan Trujillo.Coach Kirk wasn’t thrilled about Los Alamos’ shooting performance on Wednesday, either. Los Alamos hit just 19 of 51 from the floor (37 percent) and 9 of 19 from the foul line (47 percent).The foul shooting, one of the Hilltoppers’ biggest strengths throughout the regular season, hurt them on Wednesday, although the Sartans fared just about the same from the stripe (7 of 14).Romero finished with seven points for Los Alamos, and Michael Helland added six, including a nice touch jumper with 2:29 left to give the ’Toppers their final edge of the contest.Leo Garcia, who along with Johansen did much of his damage on second-chance opportunities, finished with 16. Paul Jessen scored all eight of his points in the second half for the Sartans (24-5), who are seeking their third straight AAAA title, all under Segura.The Allens, meanwhile, have no regrets about 2007-2008.“It was fun to play with this team,” Nik Allen said. “This is one of the best teams I’ve played on, chemistry-wise. Everybody worked hard.”“I don’t think anybody thought we’d be as good as we were,” Ben Allen said. “The chemistry of this team is better than any team I’ve ever been on.”