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ESPAÑOLA – The packed house at Edward Medina Gymnasium was entirely on its feet for the final minutes of the District 2AAAA boys basketball championship game.
An estimated crowd of 3,700 watched the Española Valley Sundevils and Los Alamos Hilltoppers sweat it out through a contentious final quarter.
With the Sundevils clinging to a 1-point lead late, Española Valley head coach Richard Martinez elected to run a 3-man weave throughout the final five minutes of the ballgame.
The head-scratching tactic, which Martinez employed in odd spots throughout Friday night’s game, worked well enough for the Sundevils to escape with a 56-49 win over the Hilltoppers and their third-straight District 2AAAA championship.
“I think we were trying to be patient and put pressure on them,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said of Española Valley’s late game attempt to kill the clock. “I felt if we had opportunities in that fourth quarter, they’d come if we kept the game close. We did, but we just couldn’t get over that hump.”
It was a contentious fourth quarter Friday night, to say the least, with nine fouls whistled and 17 trips made to the free throw line.
Hilltopper center Alex Kirk took all but two shots in the final period – one of them a desperation 3-pointer by Zach Parks that sailed wide - as Los Alamos tried to battle back from an early 6-point deficit in the quarter.
Los Alamos cut the Española Valley lead to 49-48 with Kirk’s basket, coming off his own initial miss, with 5:27 remaining.
Kirk scored all nine of Los Alamos’ points in the final period – he finished with 28 overall – but Española Valley hit enough of its late-game free throws to take the victory.
Despite Friday’s loss, the Hilltoppers’ Class AAAA playoff prospects will probably be affected only minimally. While the Hilltoppers failed to clinch a postseason berth – because of a rule change two years ago, only a district’s regular season and tournament champion are automatically qualified for the playoffs – they are a virtual lock to pick up an at-large bid, with their season record of 19-9. By most reasonable standards, the Hilltoppers should be placed in the top half of the 16-team bracket.
The Sundevils (23-4), meanwhile, are in line for one of the top three seeds in the AAAA playoffs. They were the top-seeded team in 2007-08 but were knocked out of the tournament by fifth-seeded Albuquerque Academy in the semifinals.
Española Valley looked like it would have a chance to put Friday’s ballgame away early. Midway through the second quarter, Sundevil Ryan Salazar buried a 3-pointer, sparking an impressive 11-4 Española Valley scoring run, upping Española Valley’s edge to 31-21, its biggest lead of the ballgame.
But with about two minutes before the half, Martinez elected to have his offense slow the ball down and try to run time off the clock, despite the fact that his team’s speed running the floor was a big part of the reason the Sundevils were able to make their run. In doing so, Los Alamos forced two defensive stoppages and cut the lead to six with under a minute remaining. Only a tough Salazar jumper with time winding down would push the Sundevil advantage back up to 33-25 at the break.
“We got the lead early and tried to protect it,” Martinez said. “Basketball is a game of runs. You make a run on them, they make a run on you ... I tried to change up the offense several times.”
Martinez praised his offense for its ability to knock more than three minutes off the clock at the end of the game, essentially playing a successful game of keep-away from the Hilltoppers.
While four of the Hilltopper defenders were busy chasing the ball down, only Kirk remained very close to the basket.
Martinez said after the game he was hoping to draw Kirk outside to open up driving lanes for his very quick guards, but Kirk held his ground for virtually the entire contest.
Friday was not Los Alamos’ most balanced scoring night of the season. After Kirk’s 28, no other Hilltopper finished with more than six.
Jack Russell and Corey Clark, who were instrumental in the Hilltoppers’ tournament semifinal victory the night before against Capital, both finished with six points.
For the Sundevils, Luis Alvarado and Matthew Brito led with 12 points. All but one of the Sundevils who entered Friday’s game ended up in the scoring column.
This season, Los Alamos was the only Class AAAA team to hand the Sundevils a loss.
Los Alamos pulled off a 59-53 upset at Española Valley Jan. 30, one of its marquee victories of the season.
Española Valley won the other two meetings between the teams this season, Friday night and Feb. 18 at Los Alamos.
“All three games came down to who was leading and who was shooting free throws in the fourth quarter,” Kirk said.
Alex Kirk was named co-Most Valuable Player in 2AAAA, along with Brito. Doug Hardy and Parks were both named to the All-District second team.