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ALBUQUERQUE — Trying to pull off an upset against the top-ranked team in the state on its home floor is a major undertaking under the best of circumstances.
Trying to do it after spotting the top-ranked team 15 points nearing the half is considerably harder.
But Thursday night in the first round of the Joe Armijo Invitational Tournament, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team managed to pull of that exact feat. Los Alamos bounced back from a 33-18 deficit to upend the Albuquerque Academy Chargers 55-52.
The Chargers went into Thursday night’s game as the No. 1 ranked squad in Class AAAA according to the first New Mexico High School Coaches Association poll. In the first half, the Chargers looked every bit like one of the premier squads in the state.
With just 3:20 remaining in the first half, Academy’s Kevin Nelson buried a 3-pointer from well behind the arc to put his squad up by 13 points. Less than 30 seconds later, a transition bucket by Dylan Gordon up the Academy edge to 15, prompting a Los Alamos timeout.
“At that timeout, we talked about getting back into the game,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “We looked like we were playing tentative, and they were doing a good job against Alex (Kirk). We had to get the other guys involved and attack their press.”
“We had to get the lead under 10 points at the half,” Los Alamos guard Doug Hardy said.
And that’s exactly what Los Alamos did.
With time winding down in the second quarter, the Hilltoppers put together an 8-0 run to get back within striking distance. Zach Parks hit a 3-pointer coming out of the Hilltopper timeout to get the rally started, while Los Alamos hit some late free throws to cut the Academy advantage to 33-26 by the break.
The Hilltopper momentum would continue throughout much of the second half, that despite the Chargers’ defense, which was centered squarely on Kirk, the Hilltoppers’ leading scorer.
“We knew coming in they’d be all over Alex,” Hardy said. “He still got his touches and he still stayed involved, but them keying him, that meant other players opened up.”
Hardy finished Thursday’s contest with 14 points, second on the team only behind Kirk’s 16.
Kirk had 11 of his points in the first half, but was drawing double- and sometimes triple-teams in the paint throughout the second half.
With Academy (3-4) keeping careful watch on him, forward Wade Archuleta got loose in the low post and scored all seven of his points in a critical stretch in the third quarter.
Archuleta’s third layup, on which he had to elevate through several block attempts, made the score 35-32 Academy.
Archuleta said afterward that getting back to basics in the third quarter helped Los Alamos fight its way back into the contest.
“We started running our offense,” he said. “That started to help. We ran our offense, we got pressure on defense and (the Chargers) started to get tired.”
Coach Kirk said good efforts off the bench by Archuleta — he had seven of the eight points from the bench players Thursday — and Corey Clark, who was one of the four players Los Alamos rotated to defend Nelson, provided a big spark in the second half.
Nelson, who finished with a game high 26 points, played the entire second half without a break and his energy started to wane late. Nelson put up several shots that were coming up short, including a desperation 3-pointer late.
Los Alamos’ comeback was aided well by Academy’s uncharacteristically poor foul shooting. Academy made just 6 of 21 attempts Thursday (28.6 percent), misfiring on 6 of 8 in the third quarter as Los Alamos pared the lead down to two points with 2:24 remaining.
Academy would eventually move back up by six heading into the final period.
In the final quarter, Hardy and Jack Russell would combine for 12 of Los Alamos’ 18 points. Russell buried two 3s early in the quarter, the second of which gave the Hilltoppers a 47-45 lead.
Nelson would answer later in the quarter with a NBA-range 3-pointer of his own to briefly put his team up 50-49, but old-fashioned 3-point play from Kirk and a slashing drive to the hoop by Hardy one possession later put the contest away.
Russell finished with 10 points and Zach Parks had seven in the victory.
“I think the kids came back and showed a lot of heart,” coach Kirk said. “Overall, it was a great effort and a big accomplishment to beat Academy at Academy.”
Thursday’s win was the fifth straight for the Hilltoppers (6-1).
, who headed into the contest just two days after a grueling contest against a very physical Belen squad.
Los Alamos advanced in the championship bracket. It will face Rio Rancho, which knocked off Sandia 82-71, in tonight’s semifinal.
In other first round action at the Joe Armijo Invitational, Class AA Hope Christian topped St. Pius X 55-44 and Clovis downed Cibola 77-62.
The Armijo tournament continues through Saturday at Academy.