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JACONA — Should the Los Alamos Hilltoppers wish to defend their Ben Lujan Invitational title, they will likely need a better showing the rest of the way than they had Monday night.
The Hilltopper boys basketball team was nearly upset in the first round of the tournament by a struggling Socorro Warriors squad Monday at Ben Lujan Gymnasium. Socorro held a two-point lead with 3:40 remaining in regulation and was within one possession of tying the score with 13.2 seconds remaining.
But a sloppy pass to the backcourt was picked off by sophomore guard Nick Baker, who dropped in a layup ahead of Socorro guard Erik Garcia to help seal a 48-43 victory in Monday’s first round.
Los Alamos was expected to roll to victory Monday against the Warriors, who have just one victory on the 2009-10 season, but would’ve found itself in serious trouble had it not been for a woeful Warriors’ shooting performance. The Warriors hit just 17 of 59 attempts from the field (28.8 percent) and only reached the free throw line three times in the game.
The lackluster performance by the Hilltoppers (7-2) came as a surprise to forward Austin Wolstein, one of the team’s few bright spots on the night.
“I think it’s the two-day break we had,” said Wolstein, referring to the team’s taking the weekend off from practice after having no games scheduled for nine days. “We played awful. We didn’t play like we should’ve. We didn’t do what we did in practice. We didn’t have the mental focus. We did alright in the first two minutes…but we let it go.”
The Hilltoppers looked like they might run the Warriors (1-5) right out of the building early. Hilltopper star center Alex Kirk kept himself busy early in the contest not by scoring points but by dishing off to cutters heading to the basket, particularly Wolstein.
Kirk had five assists and just one point in the first quarter as Los Alamos built up a 17-12 lead after the first eight minutes.
But as good as Kirk’s passing was in the first quarter, the Hilltoppers started turning the ball over in the second and third quarters to let the Warriors right back into the contest. The Hilltoppers lost the ball 12 times in the middle quarters.
Los Alamos never led by more than six in the game, while Socorro actually wrenched the lead for short periods of time throughout the last three quarters. Los Alamos led by just one point after three quarters with a late offensive rebound and bucket by Kirk giving it that advantage.
Kirk, who finished with 19 points, 17 rebounds, eight assists and six blocked shots, said the team plodded through several stretches of Monday’s game.
“We’ve got to pick up the pace,” he said. “We slowed down to their speed…They dictated the game and they dictated what we did. We can’t play like that.”
Heading into Monday’s game, one of the big keys Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk stressed was the team’s perimeter defense, which was torched in two of its games at the Joe Armijo Invitational Dec. 10-12. Los Alamos gave up 26 3-pointers in losses to Rio Rancho and Hope Christian.
While Kirk thought overall the showing was better, the defense struggled in spots Monday, however, with the Warriors got several uncontested 3-point chances. The Warriors connected on 7 of 20 chances from long range with guards Michael Contreras hitting 2 of 5 attempts and Jared Marquez knocking down 3 of his 10 shots from beyond the circle.
“We’ve got to continue to work on it,” coach Kirk said. “Coach (Lawrence) Baca had some set plays, some good multiple-pick plays to set up some of their shooters. They spotted (Marquez) up in the corner and he loves that corner shot.”
When Los Alamos was running its offense, it had good success. Los Alamos was 21-for-44 from the floor (47.7 percent), but its 18 turnovers made Monday’s game more difficult than was expected.
Wolstein converted 7 of 10 from the field Monday on his way to 15 points. Guard Zach Parks knocked down a pair of 3s of his own in the first half to finish with eight.
Marquez had 11 points to lead Socorro and Garcia and Contreras finished with eight points.
Los Alamos could have a tougher test tonight when it faces Grants at 7 p.m. in the tournament’s semifinal round. Grants has gotten off to a hot start this season, posting a 10-1 record so far including Monday’s 57-51 opening round victory over a pesky Mesa Vista squad (5-6).