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The funny thing about district play is that struggling teams can turn their fortunes around pretty quickly.
The Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team took the first step to doing just that Wednesday night and has a chance to take a giant leap this weekend.
In their District 2AAAA opener Wednesday night, the Hilltoppers upended the Bernalillo Spartans. The Hilltoppers’ stout defense held the Spartans to just five points in the pivotal third quarter as they came away with a 57-44 victory at Griffith Gymnasium.
It was the best team performance of the season put forth by Los Alamos (5-14 overall, 1-0 in 2AAAA), which desperately needed a big showing. Heading into the contest, Los Alamos had been held to 29 points or less in three consecutive outings.
But Los Alamos got a huge night from its top offensive threat, guard Thomas Russell, who missed out on Saturday’s nondistrict game against Sandia with a foot injury. Russell finished with a game-high 20 points, going 10-for-12 in the fourth quarter from the free throw line to help seal the victory.
The Hilltoppers also got good offensive production from guard Nick Baker and forward Bobby Sanders, who combined for 21 points. Sanders also had a big night on the glass, pulling down seven rebounds.
Sanders said the team was geared up for a big night going in.
“Everyone played hard, everyone played together,” Sanders said. “We got assists. We do what we need to do. (David) Knapp and (Travis) Richins helped out in the post.”
Before Wednesday’s game, the Hilltoppers struggled through their previous five contests, all losses in which they failed to score 40 points — because its defense was having perhaps its best stretch of the season concurrently, Los Alamos stayed close most of the way through those games.
But Los Alamos was more offensive-minded Wednesday night. It found a hole in the Bernalillo pressure defense, on the baseline close to the basket and exploited it several times.
Knapp, Richins and Nate Carver got free on the baseline several times throughout the evening, with Carver dropping in three easy buckets for his six points.
“One of the keys was the way we were playing in the third quarter,” said Los Alamos head coach Matt King following the first district victory of his career. “We were able to be the aggressor. Usually, the team that’s the aggressor wins.”
In the third, Los Alamos turned up the defensive pressure, forcing seven Bernalillo turnovers. Sanders, for his part, had two steals, an assist, and scored six of his nine points as the Hilltoppers outscored the Spartans (9-8 overall, 0-1 in 2AAAA) 11-5 to open up a 32-27 advantage.
Prior to its last two outings, Bernalillo had been playing about as well as any team in Class 4A. However, with an injury to its point guard, Brandon Saiz, Bernalillo has suffered back-to-back losses, also dropping a nondistrict tilt with Pojoaque Jan. 15.
Post player Jordan Ludi led the Spartans with nine points, while Trey Darnell and Ryan Garcia both had seven.
For the Hilltoppers, Russell finished with 14 of his 20 in the final quarter, connecting on both ends of two 1-and-1 chances from the foul line.
Russell’s fast break layup early in the fourth quarter gave Los Alamos a 36-27 edge, its biggest of the game to that point. Dillon Darnell converted a 3-point play at the 6:59 mark to get the Spartans back within six, but they would never edge closer.
King said he wasn’t terribly happy with the 17 points his defense gave up in the fourth quarter, although a fair chunk of those points occurred in garbage time.
Sanders said team defense has been a hallmark of the 2010-11 season.
“Defense is definitely our identity,” he said. “That’s what we need to do. That’s how we win games.”
With the victory, Los Alamos now has a suddenly-big game Saturday night against the Santa Fe Demons.
The Demons (4-9, 0-1), much like the Hilltoppers, are trying to get the feel of a new coach and a new system this season. The Demons put a scare into the Española Valley Sundevils, the four-time defending 2AAAA champions, falling 62-61 in Española in the district opener for both teams.
Capital’s Jaguars were idle Wednesday.
Santa Fe will be looking to avoid going 0-2 to start the district season — teams in 2AAAA almost never bounce back from a 0-2 start — while the Hilltoppers can move into first place early in the district race with a win.
“It’s nice to play in a big game, playing in a game that really matters,” King said.
Los Alamos 57, Bernalillo 44
Bernalillo 7 15 5 17—44
Los Alamos 13 8 11 25—57
Bernalillo — Trey Darnell 2-7 1-2 7, Ryan Garcia 3-4 0-1 7, Stephen Lujan 2-7 0-2 5, Joseph Kleoppel 1-1 4-4 6, Jordan Ludi 3-4 3-6 9, Omar Luna 1-3 0-0 2, Jacob Martin 1-4 2-4 5, Dillon Darnell 1-4 1-2 3. Totals 14-34 11-21 44.
Los Alamos — Thomas Russell 4-9 11-14 20, Bobby Sanders 3-7 3-4 9, Nick Baker 5-8 2-2 12, Travis Richins 1-3 2-2 4, David Knapp 2-4 0-0 4, Nate Carver 3-7 0-0 6, Daniel Salazar 1-3 0-0 2, Brady Stokes 0-0 0-0 0, Deion Fellers 0-0 0-0 0, Salvador Salaiz 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-41 18-22 57.
3-point goals — Bern 5-17 (T. Darnell 2-6, Garcia 1-2, Lujan 1-3, Martin 1-3, D. Darnell 0-3), LA 1-7 (Russell 1-5, Carver 0-3, Sanders 0-1, Baker 0-1). Total fouls — Bern 16, LA 19. Fouled out — Knapp (4th, 1:07), T. Darnell (4th, :27.2). Technicals — None.