Boys basketball: LA opens state first round Saturday

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By Mike Cote

While on Saturday the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team will look to make its fourth straight trip to the Class AAAA quarterfinal round, it will also look to make it past that round for the first time in those trips.

The Hilltoppers will take their first step on the road to a Class AAAA title Saturday when they take on the Piedra Vista Panthers. Saturday’s game, at Griffith Gymnasium, is scheduled for 2 p.m.

Los Alamos (18-9) grabbed the sixth seed for the Class AAAA tournament, while Piedra Vista (16-10) earned the tournament’s 11th seed.

This will be the first time in three seasons the Hilltoppers will be staying at home in the first round. In the previous two instances, however, the Hilltoppers had to travel despite being the higher seed.

In 2008, Los Alamos finished as a seventh seed but had to go to Deming to play the Wildcats, who won the District 3 championship – district champs are guaranteed a home game in the first round of the playoff. The same thing happened last season to the Hilltoppers, who traveled to Farmington to play the District 1 champion Scorpions.

Los Alamos made it past those games, but fell in the quarterfinals on both occasions. It was knocked out by eventual champion St. Pius X in the 2008 tournament at University Arena, then lost in 2009 to Artesia, also at The Pit, the second time in three years Artesia’s Bulldogs had ended Los Alamos’ season in the state quarterfinals.

The Hilltoppers finished second in the District 2AAAA regular season, eking out a second tiebreaker from the Capital Jaguars, who ended up in the 12th spot in the AAAA bracket. They would go on to finish second in the 2AAAA tournament as well, falling 75-57 in the district championship game to Española Valley.

While fatigue can easily set in at this time of the season, the Hilltoppers have hardly been resting on their laurels. Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said he puts his teams through the paces in the week between the end of the district tournament and the start of the state playoffs.

“We have really stepped up in practice,” Kirk said. “Some of the kids question why this is the hardest week of practice of the season, but we learned some time ago that if you’re flat this week, you come out flat in the game. You play like you practice.”

Piedra Vista finished in third place in District 1 during the regular season, behind Kirtland Central – which Los Alamos topped 77-64 in its first game of the 2009-10 season – and Shiprock.

The Panthers proved to be a pretty streaky team during the regular season. After winning four games to start the season, the Panthers lost six of their next seven.

That streak was followed by Piedra Vista winning 11 of its next 12. It closed out its season dropping four of five.

Friday’s game could be a study in contrasts. The Hilltoppers have done most of their damage this season by pounding the ball down to star center Alex Kirk, who is averaging close to 30 points per game this season.

At 6 feet, 11 inches, Kirk towers over the tallest member of Piedra Vista’s squad, 6-foot-4 Dennis Simonson.

Piedra Vista, however, has decent speed and will likely try to put full-court pressure on guards Wade Archuleta and Zach Parks.

“Everybody we’ve played has done that, don’t you think?” coach Kirk said. “They’re extremely hard-working. They’ve got underrated talent and they’re a very well coached team.”

The Hilltoppers have generally been solid this season and breaking presses and getting quick buckets off press breaks.

Austin Wolstein has been effective this season on the opposite side of the key from Alex Kirk, moving without the ball and cutting into the basket. He will likely have to have some big games during the postseason for the Hilltoppers to move on past the quarterfinal round.

Coach Kirk said if the team can run its offense effectively and avoid turnovers – Los Alamos has generally been able to limit those turnovers in the second half of the season – it will have a better chance of moving on.

“We can’t give up the ball,” he said. “We’ve got to work for good shots. We can’t be out of control. We’ve got to win on the boards and play tough defense.”

The winner of Saturday afternoon’s game will advance to the quarterfinals Wednesday morning in The Pit.

Awaiting the winner, barring a notable upset by 14th-seeded Belen, will be the Albuquerque Academy Chargers, the No. 3 seed in the tournament and a team that has been ranked in the top three in the statewide coaches poll the entire season.

Coach Kirk said everyone is in pretty good health for his team right now. Alex Kirk, who injured his right elbow in the regular season finale, has been wearing a sleeve to protect his arm recently. While he said the elbow was sore following the district tournament semifinal game, he said he’s able to play through it.