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Since taking over the head coaching job for the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball program, Matt King has made no bones that his team will be a work-in-progress during the 2010-11 season.
And now, two games into the season, he is fully aware of where the most work needs to take place.
In their home opener of the season, and the first home game in King’s coaching stint at Los Alamos, the Hilltoppers turned the ball over 28 times, including losing the ball 17 times in the second and third quarters.
Without some turnovers in key situations, the Hilltoppers might have held serve against the visiting Piedra Vista Panthers. Instead, the Hilltoppers fell 61-54 to the Panthers, dropping them to 0-2 on the season.
Los Alamos struggled against the Piedra Vista full-court pressure much of the night, but the most damaging turnovers came in several sequences in the second and fourth quarters when, after making stops on the defensive end, would give the ball right back. Piedra Vista took advantage, going on a 17-6 run to close out the second half and moving up by double-digits late in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.
Los Alamos, which only has two players on its roster that saw significant varsity playing time a season ago, will try to work on ball protection as the season wears on.
“For us, all of this is a learning opportunity,” King said. “Taking care of the ball is part of our identity, it’s a big part of our program…we gave them opportunities we shouldn’t have.”
Despite the turnovers, the game remained close most of the way until the Panthers started converting fast break points late and knocked down their free throws to ice it. The Panthers went 9 of 12 from the foul line in the fourth quarter — Jacob Armijo was a perfect 6 of 6 inside the last two minutes — to stave off a late Hilltopper comeback attempt.
Los Alamos and Piedra Vista met in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs last season. Led by its star center, Alex Kirk, Los Alamos blasted Piedra Vista 89-56 at Griffith Gym.
Saturday, Los Alamos did set itself up with some good looks throughout the game and shot a very solid 21 of 39 from the field (53.8 percent).
Nathan Carver hit a pair of long-range shots in the first quarter — a 3-pointer and another jumper with his toe on the 3-point arc — which helped to loosen up the Piedra Vista half-court pressure defense and set the Hilltoppers up with a few good looks inside the paint.
But the Hilltoppers’ struggles with turnovers limited their offensive chances.
“It’s a little frustrating at times,” Los Alamos senior Thomas Russell said. “We’re getting the process and we’re coming together as a team right now. I think we’re getting there.”
Russell had 28 points in the Hilltoppers’ opener, a loss at Kirtland Central Tuesday. He finished with 13 Saturday, eight of those coming in the fourth quarter as Los Alamos tried to dig itself out of a 10-point hole late.
For its part, Piedra Vista found Isaiah Sanchez cutting to the lane and to the basket for most of the contest. Sanchez at one point in the second quarter had 12 of his team’s 15 total points.
King said the Hilltoppers had match-up issues when trying to slow Sanchez down. Sanchez finished with a game-high 23 points, hitting 8 of 12 shots from the field.
Russell again led Los Alamos’ scoring effort. Following him were Roger Grey, who scored 11 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, and Nick Baker and Carver, who both finished with 10 to round out a well-balanced scoring effort.
Los Alamos will be hoping to avoid going 0-3 against Class AAAA competition when it travels to Moriarty Tuesday before returning home Wednesday night for a match-up against Class AAA powerhouse St. Michael’s.
The Hilltoppers have had reason to be optimistic about their season despite the two opening losses.
“We’re definitely more into it,” Russell said. “We have the mentality of getting better. We’re working in practice and the results will come with that.”