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ALBUQUERQUE — If one had said midway through the first quarter Los Alamos would have a chance to be within two possessions at the end of the game, no one would’ve believed it.
But the Hilltopper girls basketball team did just that, chopping a big early deficit, which expanded to 20 points in the early part of the final quarter, down to just seven with 1:12 left to play Saturday afternoon at St. Sebastian Gymnasium.
However, the St. Pius X Sartans converted on a big late possession to hold off the Hilltopper comeback. The Sartans hung on for a big nondistrict victory at home over the Hilltoppers 56-49.
St. Pius, a former District 2AAAA rival of Los Alamos and currently the second-ranked team in the state, according to the latest coaches’ poll, threatened to turn Saturday’s tilt into a rout on several different occasions but would never put Los Alamos away until the final buzzer.
“I’m proud of them,” Hilltopper head coach Tarah Logan said. “We came down here on St. Pius’ home court without Bryanna (Richins) and we lost by just seven.”
Richins, one of Los Alamos’ leading scorers and leading rebounder, was battling illness all week and still hadn’t fully recovered by Saturday. Her absence in the low post was a big factor in the contest, especially considering the Sartans are one of the few teams in the state that match up well size-wise with Los Alamos.
Just as important, however, was a slew of turnovers the Hilltoppers committed in the first half.
The Hilltoppers (8-7) coughed up the ball four times in their first five possessions, managing to get just one shot off during that time as the Sartans jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Their first points didn’t come until the 4:29 mark of the first quarter when Taylor Ealey knocked in a short jumper.
Los Alamos committed 11 turnovers in the opening quarter and 18 in the first half. Although Los Alamos halved that number following the break, it wouldn’t be enough to completely climb out of the hole.
The Sartans (10-1) used full-court pressure for the entire first half. Their pressure had Los Alamos reeling early — on its first possession Los Alamos was whistled for a 10-second violation and wasn’t even particularly close to the timeline when the 10 seconds expired.
While Sartan veteran head coach Phil Griego was happy with his team’s first half defensive effort, he thought the defense let up in the second half just as his team was about to slam the door.
“It never should’ve gotten as close as it did,” Griego said. “We let them back in. We’ve got to learn to close out games. We’re better than that and we didn’t do it.”
Despite being without Richins, the Hilltoppers were able to slow St. Pius’ big girls down inside. Cora Pack came off the bench Saturday and played outstanding defense against St. Pius posts Sam Brown and Jordan Unverzagt.
Pack also had two huge putback baskets in the second half, the latter coming with 2:11 remaining in the contest to cut what was a 20-point Sartan lead early in the fourth quarter down to just 11.
Logan said after the contest she thought her defense played well enough to win and, after limiting its turnovers against the St. Pius press, her offense did likewise.
“We held them to under 60 points and (Saturday) we had almost 50, which is a lot for us,” she said. “When we get more than 40 points, we usually win.”
Los Alamos was paced by Ealey, who had game-high 21 points. Ealey, who has become an outside scoring threat that Los Alamos was lacking coming into the season, hit four 3-pointers in the contest and even converted a rare 4-point play early in the fourth quarter after St. Pius pushed its lead to 50-30.
From that point to inside one minute remaining, however, Los Alamos put together a 17-4 run and had a chance to cut the lead to just six after Feliz Pacheco went coast-to-coast off a steal and was fouled going in for a layup.
Pacheco had another steal in the backcourt on St. Pius’ next possession, but Los Alamos couldn’t turn that into points. St. Pius would eventually wind the clock down by playing keep away on its offensive end.
St. Pius hit a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half to jump out to the big lead. The Sartans had 11 points from both guard Agnes Gallegos and guard Alexandria Membreño and eight from guard Elisha Levinston.
Sarah Worland finished with eight points for Los Alamos and Pack and Tyree Richins added six apiece.