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JACONA — While Tuesday’s game may have gotten a little more interesting in the second half than the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team might have liked, it held on for a badly-needed victory.
Los Alamos, playing in the consolation round of the Ben Lujan Invitational Tuesday, looked like it had its contest against Peñasco well in-hand after about 2-1/2 quarters, but the Panthers, led by scrappy shooting guard Gerrick Romero, clawed their way back into the contest.
But, despite cutting deep into a 16-point Los Alamos lead near the midpoint of the third quarter to four in the fourth quarter, Los Alamos countered by hitting 9 of 11 free throws late in the game. Los Alamos picked up a 54-42 victory to advance to the fifth-place game Thursday afternoon.
“It feels good,” Hilltopper guard Daniel Salazar said after the victory. “We still have flaws, but we’ll fix those as we progress. It’s great to get the win.”
Salazar, who finished with seven points coming off the bench, hit all four of his free throw attempts in the final period to help seal the victory.
Tuesday’s victory snapped a four-game losing streak for the Hilltoppers (2-8), who themselves came up short in a comeback attempt during Monday’s opening round of the tournament against Pojoaque.
Also Tuesday, the Bernalillo Spartans assured there will be a first-time champion of the tournament.
Pojoaque and Los Alamos are the only two schools that have ever won the tournament title in its 11-year history, but the Spartans topped Pojoaque’s Elks in the semifinal, 72-53.
Bernalillo and Bosque, a 50-46 winner over Mesa Vista in the other semifinal, will meet for the Ben Lujan championship at 8:30 p.m.
Los Alamos and Taos had been longtime district rivals, first in District 2AAA then in 2AAAA before Taos dropped down to Class 3A this fall. Taos knocked off Socorro 57-51 to get into the fifth-place contest.
Against Peñasco, Los Alamos held Peñasco to just 3 of 14 shooting in the first quarter. It went on an impressive 15-3 run in the late part of the first quarter through the 4:53 mark of the second quarter to go up 26-12.
The Hilltoppers led 37-22 at the break, but Romero, who outscored the rest of his team before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, went on a tear.
Romero scored seven of Peñasco’s 11 points in the third quarter. During that same time, the Hilltoppers went ice cold from the floor and committed eight turnovers.
“You can correlate turnovers to other teams’ runs very easily,” Los Alamos head coach Matt King said. “It’s all part of being a young team without any seniors. We struggled to make shots in the third quarter and even into the fourth quarter. With stuff like that happening, momentum changes.”
Before the Hilltoppers’ rough third quarter, their offense was clicking about as well as it had all season. They converted 17 of 23 shots from the floor (73.9 percent) in the first half, with Thomas Russell scoring 11 points, Nick Baker nine and Travis Richins eight. Not one of them missed a shot in the first half.
But Los Alamos made only three field goals in the second half and just one in the third quarter, that by Baker who finished with 11 points in the contest.
Fortunately, the Hilltopper defense, which has been very good in spots this season, stiffened in the final quarter. The defense held the Panthers (1-3) to just one field goal in the final seven minutes, that a 3-pointer by Romero with 4:03 remaining to shave the Hilltopper advantage down to 43-42.
Romero finished with 24 points, connecting on five 3-pointers. No other Panther finished with more than six.
Los Alamos shut out Peñasco for the rest of the contest, however, and with its solid late-game foul shooting finally pulled away.
“You’ve got to be prepared to shoot free throws when the time comes,” Salazar said.
Richins, who has come into his own in the low post of the last several games, led Los Alamos with 14 points, while Russell added 13.
Defensively, Richins Baker and Bobby Sanders all finished with two blocks.
King said he hoped his team realized playing like it did in the first half is what it needs to do throughout each contest.
“They were the aggressor in the first half,” he said. “In high school basketball, the aggressor usually controls the game. That’s why you saw what you saw.”