Boys basketball: Sundevils outlast Hilltoppers at home

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By Mike Cote

The game plan couldn’t have been much better for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team Tuesday night.
But, once again, Los Alamos couldn’t find the bucket when it had the opportunities.
Los Alamos, trying to slay the District 2AAAA beast that is Española Valley, held the fast-charging Sundevil offense to under 50 points. However, the Hilltopper offense, which again misfired on several high-percentage looks, couldn’t keep pace.
The Hilltoppers fell 49-35 to the Sundevils at Griffith Gymnasium despite a raucous crowd squarely behind them Tuesday.
With just one game remaining in the first half of the district season — that coming Friday night against Capital — Los Alamos is still looking for its second 2AAAA victory. Los Alamos had chances against both Santa Fe last Saturday and Española Valley to make a big statement, but has yet to follow up on its district-opening victory over Bernalillo last week.
Most frustrating to Hilltopper head coach Matt King afterward was the team’s inability to convert its open shots, which was all the more frustrating since the Hilltoppers’ team defense was again spot-on.
“We struggled to make those close-range shots,” King said. “We missed a dozen layups. We did everything we needed to do except finish. We’re getting better as a basketball team, but we’re not OK with moral victories anymore.”
Los Alamos’ defense, which has been first-rate for the last month, kept the Hilltoppers within striking distance of the Sundevils (12-5 overall, 3-0 in 2AAAA), the second-ranked team in the state.
In the teams’ first meeting, a nondistrict tilt in mid-December, the Sundevils scored 20 points or better in all four quarters to win 85-60. Tuesday, the Sundevils scored no more than the 16 points posted in the second quarter.
Los Alamos trailed just 18-15 with time winding down in the first. In the half’s final sequence, however, Española Valley managed to get off just a tough shot from the deep corner, which clanked off the rim.
During the fight for the rebound, however, the ball skipped straight out to Española Valley’s top player, guard Rodney Coles, who buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Coles, arguably the premier player in northern New Mexico, finished with 20 points, connecting on three 3-pointers and going 7 of 7 from the foul line.
For the Hilltoppers, Nick Baker turned in a hard-nosed effort Tuesday. Baker was Los Alamos’ most effective offensive option, finishing with 14 points, 10 of those in the second half.
Baker hit a late 3-pointer as Los Alamos (5-16 overall, 1-2 in 2AAAA) tried to battle back from a deficit, which stood at 18 points late in the third quarter. Los Alamos chipped the lead down to eight, but the Sundevils were 13-for-16 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter when the Hilltoppers were forced to foul to preserve the clock.
“We’re a fighting team, but there’s a few things we need to fix,” Baker said afterward. “We need to be tough, hang in there and stay together.”
The Hilltoppers played even through one quarter with the Sundevils, holding them to just seven points through eight minutes. But the lack of consistent offensive production was again a big factor in the loss.
Thomas Russell finished with nine points and Bobby Sanders had seven, but no other Hilltoppers finished with more than two.
For the Sundevils, Richie Mondragon had 11.
Española Valley, which has won four straight district titles is solidly entrenched in first place. It doesn’t play again until Feb. 2 at Bernalillo, which is currently sitting in the 2AAAA basement.
Just three days after playing for a share of the 2AAAA lead, Los Alamos now drops into fourth place in the district race.
King said he’s hoping his team can knock off Capital, another top-10 Class 4A team, and make a run in the second half of the district slate.
“What people thought at the beginning of the year when they got into district, they’d have at least one night off with Los Alamos and they don’t,” he said. “If we execute, do things the right way, we think we can beat anybody.”