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ESPAÑOLA – The first 12 minutes of Wednesday night’s game could scarcely have gone better for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team.
The next four minutes, not so much.
Meanwhile, the mighty Española Valley Sundevils nearly let a late 9-point lead slip away as Los Alamos star center Alex Kirk had a night to remember.
Unfortunately, the Sundevils were able to hang on despite playing a sloppy, foul-riddled fourth quarter to beat the Hilltoppers 74-71 at Edward Medina Gymnasium.
The loss officially eliminated the Hilltoppers from any hope of earning a piece of the District 2AAAA regular season title. The Sundevils clinched the district outright with Wednesday’s victory.
“It was a very exciting game,” Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said. “The kids played very hard. It was fun to watch and it was fun to coach in. There were a few things that could’ve caused the game to go either way. We allowed way too many transition points.”
It was the fourth-straight 2AAAA title for the Sundevils, who have been the No. 2 ranked team in Class AAAA for the entire season behind only defending champion Roswell.
Española Valley head coach Richard Martinez was more relieved than celebratory following Wednesday’s game, in which his team built up a 69-60 cushion with less than 2 minutes remaining and nearly squandered it.
“It gets harder every year,” Martinez said. “This isn’t the first year we’ve done this. Every year it gets harder and harder. This district is tough. It’s tough playing the same teams 15 times in five years.”
With under a minute remaining, the Sundevils had a 70-63 lead, but Hilltopper guard Wade Archuleta made a tough layup while getting hacked under the basket. Although Archuleta missed the ensuing free throw, Kirk grabbed the board and was immediately hacked himself trying to put it back.
Kirk hit both his free throws to cut the lead to 3. Just 11 seconds later, following an Española Valley turnover, Kirk was fouled again, this time inside the half court circle. Kirk once again converted his foul shots, slicing the lead to just one.
On the other end, however, Sundevil guard Rodney Coles, who was fouled twice with the Hilltoppers trying to preserve the clock, converted all four of his foul shot chances in the final 26.4 seconds, sealing the victory.
For Kirk, one of the marquee players in the state who will continue his basketball career after this season at the University of New Mexico, he finished with 44 points, matching the career-high he posted in January against St. Pius.
Most notably, Kirk converted 20 of 20 foul shots Wednesday night, quite possibly the most consecutive free throws made in one game in state history — the New Mexico Activities Association doesn’t have an official record of that statistic. Kirk’s 20 free throws made, however, are tied for the fourth-best total for a single game posted in state history.
Kirk also finished with 20 rebounds Wednesday.
Despite being among the top teams in Class AAAA, the Sundevils emerged slowly from the gate Wednesday night in front of a packed house there for the team’s senior night festivities.
Los Alamos took advantage of a sluggish Española Valley start, opening the game on a 14-5 run with Krik, Zach Parks and Austin Wolstein all getting into the scoring act.
The second quarter started much the same way, with the Hilltoppers opening on a mini-7-2 run to go up 24-11 with 4:29 remaining in the half.
From there, however, the Sundevils put together an impressive push, taking advantage of six late Hilltopper turnovers. Coles scored all nine of his first half points in the space of those final four minutes as the Sundevils closed the gap to just 30-28.
“We got into a rotation,” coach Kirk said. “They extended their pressure. Things happened that we expected. We were looking for those runs....We made some adjustments in the second half, got inside, but we missed some easy shots.”
Coles, who, owing to senior night didn’t start the game, finished with 22 points to lead the Sundevils, while Luis Alvarado added 20 points.
For Los Alamos, Wolstein finished with 9 points and Brandon Owens had 8. No other Hilltopper finished with more than 5 and Los Alamos got no points from its bench.
Outside of Kirk, Los Alamos went 2-for-10 from the free throw line Wednesday.
Los Alamos’ loss Wednesday didn’t really hurt that much in terms of its chances at grabbing a runner-up spot, but the team is well aware of potential postseason implications.
Los Alamos currently sits in third place, one game behind Capital, which, other than a 4-game winning streak, is on the bubble in terms of getting into the state Class AAAA postseason. Should Los Alamos finish behind Capital, Los Alamos’ seeding will likely take a major hit — the Hilltoppers, by almost any reasonable standard, are a lock to get no worse than an at-large postseason bid.
Saturday will also be Senior Night at Griffith Gymnasium.
“It’s really important we get a good crowd there,” Kirk said. “Having a good sixth man there will be a benefit.”