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Boys basketball: Sundevils win in front of big crowd

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By Mike Cote

Now that the packed stands and the packed parking lots around Griffith Gymnasium are empty, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys varsity basketball team will have room to think.The Hilltoppers’ thoughts, as they ponder the rematch Feb. 12 at Española Valley, may gravitate to free throw shooting.Certainly, it will be on their mind come practice Monday, when Hilltopper coach Alan Kirk will have them shoot free throw after free throw.The Hilltoppers misfired on 14 foul shots Saturday, not to mention some open shots from the floor, which Kirk estimated totaled better than 20 points that his team left on the table, in Saturday night’s 67-56 loss to Española Valley’s Sundevils.“They’re the number one team in the state, and we were right there,” Kirk said. “They gave us some chances. We had every opportunity and didn’t take it. The kids know it now.”Los Alamos’ Austin Wolstein, called into action in the third quarter off the bench, sank two high-pressure free throws early in the fourth quarter to cut what had been an 11-point Española Valley advantage down to just three with 7:36 left in regulation.But that’s as close as the Hilltoppers would come in the second half Saturday, as some solid defense and some timely spot shooting helped propel Española Valley to the win.“A lot of people would call it a steal,” Sundevil head coach Richard Martinez said. “I’m just happy we got right. We’ve accomplished a lot, but the season started (Saturday) for us.”Griffith Gymnasium was filled to capacity Saturday night, with Sundevil fans slightly outnumbering Hilltopper fans.Both teams came out tight Saturday. The Sundevils, who had won 17 straight going into Saturday’s District 2AAAA game, turned the ball over on each of their first four possessions. The Hilltoppers turned the ball over twice early.Española Valley, which boasts two of the top players in northern New Mexico, Matthew Brito and Michael Torrez, knew it had to go after the other marquee player in the game, Alex Kirk, early.Kirk, Los Alamos’ 6-foot-9 center, picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter and sat for much of the second quarter.While Kirk would finish with a game-high 19 points, he had just three at the break as Española Valley led 27-23.Española Valley, ranked number one in Class AAAA in some state polls, looked like it might pull away in the third quarter, moving ahead 42-31 with 2:05 remaining on a fast break bucket from Brito, but Los Alamos bounced right back with six straight points to close out the quarter. ‘Topper guard Nik Allen put back his own miss with 1:31 remaining to get his team going at the end of the quarter.But the free throws would eventually catch up to Los Alamos.Los Alamos (13-7 overall, 1-1 in district), misfired five times in the final quarter from the stripe. Because of the misses, Los Alamos was forced to foul through the final three minutes of the ballgame, sending Española Valley to the line 24 times in the period.Española Valley (18-1 overall, 1-0 in district) actually fared slightly worse from the foul line in the game — 18 of 31 — but was good enough to keep its margin.Nik Allen chipped in 14 points Saturday, eight in the first half. Doug Hardy, starting in place of Martin Romero, who missed Saturday’s game on a college recruiting trip, finished with nine points on 4 of 9 shooting from the field.Los Alamos defense did a good job of holding down the Sundevils’ top dogs.Torrez finished with 18 points, hitting several tough shots in the contest, both in and out of the paint. Brito fouled out with 10 points.Going into Saturday’s game, Española Valley had scored 90 points or better in its two previous games. Its 67 points Saturday was the fifth-lowest total of its season.“Our goal was to keep them between 60 and 70,” Kirk said. “We were right there. We didn’t want to get in a running match with them.”