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Boys basketball: Toppers open Ben Lujan tourney against Warriors

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By Mike Cote

It won’t be home for the holidays, but the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team won’t be that far away.

The Hilltoppers open up the Ben Lujan Invitational Monday when they face the Socorro Warriors in the tournament’s first round.

This year marks the 10th annual Ben Lujan tournament, which is hosted by Pojoaque. The field this year includes four Class AAAA teams, two Class AAA teams and a pair of AA schools.

This tournament will be the second of three straight tournament appearances for Los Alamos. The last time it played was the Dec. 10-12 Joe Armijo Invitational at Albuquerque Academy.

Los Alamos has been a regular at the Ben Lujan tournament since its inception.

“It always gives us a challenge because it’s a different type of game,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “It’s a more run-and-gun, transition type of game. We always run into teams with good shooters. It makes us more prepared for guard-oriented offenses and defenses.”

The host Pojoaque Elks, who with the Hilltoppers will be among the favorites in the field, are on the opposite end of the eight-team bracket. The Elks (5-3) will take on Peñasco in Monday’s first round.

For Los Alamos (6-2), it’s hoping to bounce back from its first two losses of the season, both of which occurred at the Armijo tournament. Los Alamos fell to Rio Rancho 79-61 in that tournament’s opening round, then dropped its fifth-place contest to Hope Christian, 81-54.

Kirk said he wasn’t thrilled with his team’s defense on the perimeter during those three games. In the two losses, Los Alamos allowed 26 3-point field goals, a number that he said is going to have to get better.

The Hilltopper perimeter defense could well be tested again at the Ben Lujan tournament, with several small, quick teams in the field, most of which will hoist up as many shots from long-range as they can.

“We’re playing teams who live and die by the 3,” Kirk said. “Pojoaque’s going to shoot 30 of them. Grants is going to shoot a lot of 3s…We’ve worked a lot on different defenses and defensive schemes. We’ll see what we’re going to use.”

In between the two losses at the Armijo Invitational, Los Alamos topped three-time defending champion St. Pius X, 70-57. In that game, Los Alamos center Alex Kirk dropped in 25 points and guard Zach Parks added 23.

Socorro (1-4), meanwhile, has gotten off to a slow start this season, but has played some tough teams like Grants, Volcano Vista and St. Michael’s.

Socorro has just three players on the roster listed above 6-feet tall.

One of the teams besides Los Alamos and Pojoaque to keep an eye on in the tournament is Class AAAA Grants. Grants has started the season off like gangbusters, going 9-1 in its first 10 games with wins over the likes of Shiprock, Pojoaque, Farmington and Taos.

Kirk said he’s looking forward to the tournament after a pretty good week of practice for his team despite having to deal with final exams at Los Alamos High School.

Los Alamos will also get its first look of the season at District 2AAAA rival Taos, which will play Kirtland Central in the first round of the tournament.

Here is the schedule for the Ben Lujan Invitational.

Monday

Taos vs. Kirtland Central, 2:30 p.m.

Grants vs. Mesa Vista, 4 p.m.

Socorro vs. Los Alamos, 5:30 p.m.

Peñasco vs. Pojoaque, 8:30 p.m.

Tuesday

Grants-Mesa Vista loser vs. Socorro-Los Alamos loser, 1 p.m.

Taos-Kirtland Central loser vs. Peñasco-Pojoaque loser, 2:30 p.m.

Grants-Mesa Vista winner vs. Los Alamos-Socorro winner, 7 p.m.

Taos-Kirtland Central winner vs. Peñasco-Pojoaque winner, 8:30 p.m.

Wednesday

Seventh-place game, 10 a.m.

Fifth-place game, 1 p.m.

Third-place game, 5:30 p.m.

Championship game, 8:30 p.m.