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ESPAÑOLA – Most of the fans at Edward Medina Gymnasium Friday night were expecting a big win by the hometown heroes.
Most of the fans left disappointed.
In the biggest game of the District 2AAAA season so far for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team, the Hilltoppers stunned the homestanding Española Valley Sundevils.
Los Alamos came back from an early nine-point deficit on the Sundevils’ home floor, then survived a Sundevil fourth quarter rally to win Friday night 59-53. The win put the Hilltoppers at 3-0 in district play, giving them sole possession of first place.
Meanwhile, the Sundevils, who went into the game as the top-ranked team in Class AAAA according to most statewide polls, slipped to second place in the district race.
“It feels good,” Hilltopper point guard Doug Hardy said. “We played well. They gave us game. It was a tough win.”
The stands were once again heavy, although it wasn’t quite the standing room only crowd the two teams played in front of last season with the Sundevils also polling as the top squad in the state.
“It’s a fun place to play,” Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said. “In front of that many people, in that whole atmosphere, the kids get really excited. The only other place like it that I’ve played is in Gallup ... The kids get pumped up and put out a great effort.”
It was a fantastic contest between two determined squads and the outcome was settled by a wild finish.
Late in the third quarter, Los Alamos established its biggest lead of the night – 12 points – and had Espanola Valley reeling. But in the fourth quarter, Española Valley charged back, led in no small part by the effort of Ryan Salazar, a guard coming off the bench who hit a pair of 3-pointers and converted an old-fashioned 3-point play.
The Sundevils scored six points in just over a minute to tie the score at 47 with 4:15 remaining, then Salazar’s 3-ball at the 1:27 mark tied the game again at 52, sending much of the estimated 3,400 spectators in a frenzy.
Los Alamos retook a slim lead, holding a 54-53 edge with 1:03 remaining. With the Hilltoppers facing tight full-court pressure – which resulted in seven turnovers in the final eight minutes – Hardy threw a long baseball pass downcourt over the head of sprinting teammate Jack Russell, who never caught up with it. The ball bounced out-of-bounds, giving the Sundevils possession right under their own basket.
“That was a bad pass on my part,” Hardy said. “But we’ve talked about forgetting bad things and moving on. That’s really helped us a lot.”
Evidently, guard Zach Parks forgot about it right away, coming up 30 seconds later with the biggest play of the game.
On Española Valley’s possession, Parks stepped in front of a cross-lane pass and was immediately fouled.
With 30.1 seconds remaining, Parks went to the free throw line and, after his first free throw bounced around the iron several times before falling in, dropped in the second free throw to give the Hilltoppers a 3-point cushion.
“Zach works very hard on his free throws,” Kirk said. “To knock those down in that situation, that says a lot.”
The Sundevils wouldn’t get another shot off until it was too late to mount a comeback.
Los Alamos (15-6 overall) went to the line 18 times in the final quarter, hitting 12 of those chances.
Parks, for his part, finished with seven points coming off the bench Friday night, all of those in the second half and five of those in the fourth quarter. Parks’ hoop-and-harm 3-point play at the 5:28 mark answered Salazar’s less than 10 seconds later and gave Los Alamos a 47-41 edge.
Española Valley (17-4 overall, 2-1 in 2AAAA) is an effective long-range shooting team and hit some big shots in the first half. Matthew Brito, one of the top guards in the state, dropped in a pair of 3s on his way to 14 first half points.
Led by Brito and forward Gabriel Rodriguez, the Sundevils held a 15-8 lead after one quarter and seemed to have the momentum heading into the second quarter.
Right before the half, however, Los Alamos claimed the lead. Michael Helland, who made several big plays on the offensive end Friday, sank a pair of free throws with four seconds before the break to give Los Alamos a 28-27 lead.
Española Valley would never lead in the game again.
In the second half, the Hilltoppers would only give up the two 3-pointers to Salazar late. Brito, would score just four points in the second half, all on free throws. He paced the Sundevils with 18 in the contest.
For Los Alamos, center Alex Kirk turned in his second straight 30-point effort. Kirk, who was harassed inside all night long – the Sundevils’ Donovan Maldonado and James Flores did a good job of limiting Kirk’s opportunities in the first half until Flores got into foul trouble in the second quarter – was 16 of 22 from the foul line and 7 of 10 from the floor.
Just as importantly, Kirk also finished with 11 second half rebounds. Controlling the boards against the Sundevils, who have a penchant for running down loose balls, proved to be a big factor in the upset.
The Sundevils shot half-again as many shots as the Hilltoppers Friday night (56 to 34).
Helland finished with seven points for Los Alamos. Hardy had six points.
Salazar had 12 for Española Valley. No other Sundevil finished with more than six.
“The kids played very well,” Kirk said. “I thought they played hard. They overcame a few mistakes and they were able to keep the tempo in the situations that favored us a little bit.”