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The bad news: the Los Alamos Hilltoppers couldn’t capitalize on a golden opportunity to knock off an 800-pound gorilla Wednesday night.
The good news: there’s a good chance they’ll get another shot.
In front of a packed Griffith Gymnasium, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team couldn’t wrest the District 2AAAA regular season title from the Española Valley Sundevils.
Despite holding a 43-39 lead after three quarters, the Hilltoppers watched that lead evaporate in less than 90 seconds into the fourth quarter and would never lead again.
The Sundevils, using two separate 8-2 runs in the final period, took the second meeting between the two teams 64-58 Wednesday.
Los Alamos had high hopes of knocking off the top-ranked Sundevils at home after taking a stunning 59-53 win Jan. 30 in Española.
While the Sundevils are now in first place, a Los Alamos victory over Capital and a Sundevils’ loss to third-place Bernalillo Saturday would deadlock the two teams for first place. In that event, the two teams could conceivably play a one-game playoff Monday in Santa Fe to determine the regular season champion.
In any event, Los Alamos will finish the regular season race in no worse than second-place — it swept third-place Bernalillo head-to-head — and could very likely meet Española Valley in the District 2AAAA tournament for the district crown.
It was particularly tough on the Hilltoppers’ veterans to fall not only in front of an estimated crowd of 2,700 fans, but on senior night, the last regular season home game of their careers.
“It’s tough, but we’ve got to put it behind us,” Hilltopper senior Michael Helland said afterward. “It’s not the end of the season yet … We had opportunities, but we just didn’t execute.”
Los Alamos (17-8 overall, 5-2 in 2AAAA) has one more regular season contest, that scheduled for Saturday afternoon at Capital. All season, Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk has preached that his team had to hold serve on its home court, but the Hilltoppers will finish with a better district road record (currently 3-0) than home record (2-2) regardless of Saturday’s outcome.
To pick up the win and leap into first place in the district standings, a position they hadn’t been in since the Jan. 30 loss, the Sundevils (21-4 overall, 6-1 in 2AAAA) outscored the Hilltoppers 25-15 in the final quarter.
In both Los Alamos’ home 2AAAA losses this season, it has allowed its opponent a big final quarter after leading heading in. Capital scored 29 points to erase a 12-point deficit and win 61-58 at Los Alamos Feb. 4.
Despite the Sundevils’ rally in the final quarter, it was a bumpy road back for Española Valley head coach Richard Martinez. Martinez watched his team misfire on seven free throw attempts including some late attempts that might have iced the game before the final seconds.
Española Valley guards Donovan Maldonado and Richie Mondragon led the way for the fourth quarter comeback. Maldonado had seven of his 13 points in the frame, going coast-to-coast with a steal to give the Sundevils the lead with 6:07 remaining — their first lead since the halfway point of the third quarter — and a 3-pointer with 5:10 remaining to put the Sundevils ahead 50-45.
Mondragon, meanwhile, only finished with eight points but had six steals, including two big ones in the final quarter.
“We had a ton to lose by losing this game,” Martinez said. “Everyone’s talking about the 1-2-3 seed for the state tournament, but if you get caught up in the 5-10 range, you’re in big trouble.”
While state tournament seedings won’t be decided until next weekend, it is all but certain both Española Valley, which has been ranked No. 1 by New Mexico prep coaches since late December, and Los Alamos, which has been hanging out in the top five for most of the season in that same poll, are going to be invited to the playoffs regardless of what happens in next week’s 2AAAA tournament.
Los Alamos struggled controlling the ball all night against a crashing Española Valley pressure defense. The Hilltoppers turned the ball over 28 times, 15 times in the second half.
The Hilltoppers got away with turning the ball over seven times in the second quarter and 10 times in the third quarter, outscoring the Sundevils 34-24 in those two periods.
In the second quarter, Los Alamos hit 12 of 13 free throw attempts, while Doug Hardy nailed a big 3-pointer to give Los Alamos a 19-17 lead, its first lead of the game.
Alex Kirk, Los Alamos’ 6-foot-11 center whose game Wednesday was being carefully monitored by University of New Mexico head coach Steve Alford, had 11 of his 21 points in the first half, including a 2-plus-1 baby hook going into the lane early in the second quarter.
Kirk was 8 of 10 from the field and also finished Wednesday’s game with 17 rebounds. Hardy finished with 12 points — his second 3-ball of the game cut the Sundevils’ advantage to 58-55 with 37.8 seconds to play — and Zach Parks, who had a steal at the end of the Jan. 30 game to seal that victory, finished with nine points coming off the bench.
Matthew Brito led the Sundevils with 20 points.