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Midway through the third quarter of Tuesday night’s ballgame, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team appeared to have everything well in-hand.
With a little less than a minute remaining in that same ballgame, things were very much up in the air.
Against the visiting St. Pius X Sartans, the Hilltoppers saw their 21-point lead with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter waste away to just 6 in the final moments at Griffith Gymnasium. The Hilltoppers were able to knock down some late free throws while Austin Wolstein converted a big driving layup to help secure a closer-than-expected victory, topping the Sartans 73-65.
With Los Alamos all but ready to deliver the knockout blow to St. Pius, which had won three consecutive state Class AAAA titles before finally giving up that crown last season to Roswell, St. Pius dropped in 27 points in the fourth quarter sparked by 5-foot-7 guard Vince Aragon. Aragon, after a scoreless first half, hit 3 3-pointers in the second half and finished with 12 of his team-high 20 points in the fourth quarter to make things a lot more interesting than most of the sizeable crowd at Griffith Gym Tuesday thought they would get.
“We knew they were going to score a lot of 3s,” Los Alamos head coach Alan Kirk said afterward. “We knew that Vince was going to try to break us down on the drive.”
Defensively, the 27 points allowed by Los Alamos in the final quarter was the second-most allowed in any quarter this season – Rio Rancho scored 28 in a Dec. 10 meeting.
On the other side of the court, Hilltopper 6-foot-11 center Alex Kirk poured in a career-high 44 points, hitting 15 of 21 attempts from the field and 13 of 15 from the free throw line.
St. Pius’ defense was almost powerless to stop Kirk, one of the marquee players in the state. At one stretch in the first half, Kirk knocked down eight straight shots, a streak that was broken by a miss on his first attempt of the second half, which he rebounded himself and laid in.
While Kirk, who will attend the University of New Mexico next season on a hoops scholarship, said he thought Los Alamos played superb basketball in the opening 16 minutes, the team started to out-think itself as the game wore on.
“I think we started to play not to lose a little bit,” he said. “Vince went off a little bit and hit some 3s, but the defense started to get a little lazy, too. We kind of got out of attacking mode. We started pulling the ball down and that’s not our game.”
Kirk hit a 3-pointer himself at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, giving the Hilltoppers a 47-26 lead, which seemed virtually insurmountable at the time.
However, St. Pius immediately countered with a lightning-quick 7-0 run to keep itself in the contest. Los Alamos led 54-38 at the end of the third quarter.
In the fourth, again with Aragon leading the way and aided by a pair of 3s from Nick Ortiz, the Sartans put together an impressive 8-0 surge and appeared to have wrenched momentum from the Hilltoppers.
The Sartans (4-11) applied heavy full-court pressure on the ball resulting in three big turnovers on their side of the hardwood, which they quickly converted into points.
Alex Kirk said the late push by St. Pius didn’t surprise him all that much.
“You can’t relax against Pius,” he said. “They have a lot of heart and they have a lot of guts. They’re going to keep fighting. It’s impressive, but we got lazy with the ball a little bit.”
Kirk finished with 13 rebounds and 8 blocked shots, just missing out on his fourth triple-double of the season.
Wolstein, who has turned into a reliable finisher on the other side of the lane, dropped in 12 points and had 5 assists as well as 9 rebounds. Hilltopper 2-guard Zach Parks also finished with 5 assists to go along with 8 points.
For the Sartans, Ortiz finished with 17, hitting 5 3-pointers on the night. Kaelan Brennan had 9 points as did Jacob Garcia coming off the St. Pius bench.
Tuesday’s win was the second of the season by Los Alamos (12-4) over St. Pius and a quality win following a disappointing loss last week at Volcano Vista.
Despite the losses to Volcano Vista and Class AAAA’s top ranked team, Roswell, Los Alamos has still picked up six wins in its last eight contests, four of those against AAAA schools.
With the district opener now less than a week away, coach Kirk said this stretch of the Hilltoppers’ season – playing Valencia, Volcano Vista, St. Pius and Del Norte all in a row – is an important one.
“There’s a lot of parity,” he said. “That’s something they talk about with the pros, but in AAAA you have three or four teams that are kind of out ahead of everybody, then there’s the rest of us.”