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Boys basketball: LA knocks off Pojoaque in Ben Lujan tourney finale

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By Mike Cote

JACONA — A tournament that started out a little shaky for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team couldn’t have ended on much more solid footing.

In the final of the Ben Lujan Invitational, the Hilltoppers put together an impressive fourth quarter, spearheaded by their brightest star, to stave off a comeback attempt by a tough Pojoaque Elks squad, winning their second-straight Ben Lujan tournament title with a 60-48 victory Wednesday.

Los Alamos senior Alex Kirk had one of his most dominant performances of the season Wednesday against Pojoaque. Kirk’s monster fourth quarter capped off a triple-double performance for the University of New Mexico-bound center. He finished Wednesday’s ballgame with 27 points, 18 rebounds and 10 blocked shots.

Meanwhile, Los Alamos forward Brandon Owens chipped in a career-high 14 points and Austin Wolstein added nine points in another solid outing for him in the tournament.

Heading into Wednesday’s final, Los Alamos was leery of Pojoaque’s proficiency shooting from long-range, but the Los Alamos perimeter defense, which had struggled in recent games, was more than up to the task.

While the Elks still drained 10 3-pointers, they needed 23 attempts to get them.

“It’s percentages,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “They were going to make some 3s and we were going to make some 2s. We pounded it inside. We hit a couple of long shots, but mainly it was inside.”

As a team, Los Alamos scored on 50 percent of its shots from the floor (23 of 46) and 15 of its 17 free throw attempts. On the other end, Pojoaque managed just a 16-for-45 shooting performance (35.6 percent).

A big part of the Elks’ lackluster shooting performance was due to Kirk’s looming presence. Kirk blocked seven shots in the first half, including three stuffs in four Elk trips down the floor late in the second quarter.

On offense, Kirk scored 18 points in the second half, eight of those in the third quarter as Pojoaque tried to make a run to cut into the Hilltoppers’ 10-point halftime lead.

Pojoaque, which features one of the most efficient run-and-gun offenses in northern New Mexico, hit four of its 3s in the third quarter.

But Los Alamos kept Pojoaque (8-4) from putting together the big scoring runs that it’s known for.

Late in the third quarter, Pojoaque’s dangerous outside shooter Tom Nakotte buried a 3-pointer at the 4:17 mark. Less than two minutes later, Brian Montoya crashed the offensive boards on a missed free throw by teammate Luke Salazar, scoring a putback basket and slicing the Hilltopper lead down to just seven.

But the Elks would never get closer in the second half than five points late in the fourth quarter.

To answer, Los Alamos went on a 6-1 mini-run to close the contest out, the run highlighted by a powerful drive to the hoop and thunderous dunk by Kirk, who let out a loud roar after the throw-down.

Kirk’s triple-double was his second of the season.

Owens, for his part, moved well without the basket, something he and Wolstein excelled at during this tournament, picking up four points in each of the final three quarters.

Keeping calm as the Elks tried to make their run at the Hilltoppers (9-2) was key to Wednesday’s victory, Owens said.

“For each of their runs, we had to step it up,” he said. “We knew they were going to hit a couple of 3s, but we had to get hands in their faces.”

Christian Baca led Pojoaque with 14 points and Salazar finished with 10. Nakotte was held to just one 3-point goal.

Los Alamos topped Socorro in the final of the 2008 Ben Lujan Invitational, then knocked Socorro off in the opening round of the tournament, a sloppy affair in which Los Alamos prevailed 48-43. Los Alamos fared a little better Tuesday in a victory over Class AAAA Grants, 50-42, to get to Wednesday’s final.

Either Los Alamos or Pojoaque has won the tournament since its inception.