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With time winding down in the first half, it looked like the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball was in trouble.
But a couple of late buckets in the first half gave the team some momentum that it carried into the third quarter.
Los Alamos trailed the Capital Jaguars by as many as 9 points with about a minute and a half remaining before the break, but Los Alamos, which felt going into Friday night’s game it could outrun the Jaguars up and down the floor, got its fast break offense going from that point on.
Hilltopper Skyler Veenis scored in transition with only about a second left in the half and Los Alamos dropped in 8 fast-break points in the third quarter, which swung the tide of the contest.
Los Alamos would hold on to win late, earning a 40-38 victory at Griffith Gymnasium for its first win of the District 2-4A season.
That long-awaited win snapped a 13-game losing streak for the Hilltoppers (2-19 overall, 1-3 in 2-4A).
Since the start of district, Los Alamos has had some close calls. It hung with Bernalillo through most of their Jan. 22 meeting before the Spartans pulled away at the end, then was victimized by cold shooting late in both its games against Santa Fe and district-leading Española Valley.
The Hilltoppers have been hungry for a positive outcome, but finally found it Friday.
“This is tremendous for our confidence,” Los Alamos reserve forward Sidney Ellis said. “We’re confident that we can beat any team in the district. We’ve just got to execute and take care of the ball.”
Taking care of the ball was not something that the Hilltoppers did well in the first half, however. They coughed up the ball 11 times in the first quarter, managing to get just four shots off in the entire 8 minutes.
However, the Jaguars (5-14 overall, 1-2 in 2-4A) couldn’t capitalize.
Despite Los Alamos’ struggles holding on to the ball, the Jaguars only scored 11 points in the first quarter and only four of those came in transition.
Neither team could get much offense going in the half-court against the other’s defense, but it seemed particularly hard for Capital, which managed just a meager 12 of 42 showing from the floor (28.6 percent).
The only consistent offense by the Jaguars came from guard Eric Coca, who canned four 3-pointers in the game and finished with a game-high 15 points.
Los Alamos head coach Mike Kluk said his team knew Coca was a deft outside shooter and was worried about him getting loose around the arc.
Veenis, who had 11 points, including a big 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter and a pair of late free throws that sealed the victory, said he wasn’t worried about the struggles in the first quarter.
“We were kind of hyped with the crowd. There were a lot of people here,” Veenis said. “Things started getting a little better in the second quarter and that last basket in the first half, we had the momentum.”
The win was the first for Kluk since being installed as the interim coach in early January after the sudden departure of Fil Dominguez. Kluk said that despite the first half struggles, the mood was upbeat in the locker room.
“The fact that we were only down by 5 at the half, that was as bad a half as we’d played in weeks,” Kluk said. “We told them, ‘this is our game to win.’”
Point guard Franklin Archuleta, who has been the team’s leading scorer for much of the season, again paced the Hilltoppers with 13 points, 8 of those coming in the second half, along with picking up three steals. Archuleta had a big swipe-and-basket early in the third quarter, picking the pocket of Capital’s Augustine Larranaga that seemed to put the Jaguars into panic mode.
Los Alamos, which has been looking for an extra scorer to reinforce what it’s getting from Archuleta and Veenis, have gotten solid recent performances from Seth Drop and Ellis. Ellis had a strong night coming off the bench Friday, finishing with 7 points and 5 rebounds, despite having to battle with lots of bodies in the paint.
“That made me a better rebounder tonight,” he said afterward.
While Los Alamos still has a ways to go before it can get back into the thick of the district race, Friday’s win was a good start.
Because there’s no clear-cut favorite — Española Valley still appears to be the team to beat, but as Los Alamos showed last Tuesday, the Sundevils are far from invincible — should the Hilltoppers gain some momentum off Friday and finish the 2-4A regular season strong, they could position themselves for at least a somewhat favorable seed for the district tournament later this month.
“It feels great,” Veenis said of the win. “We want to keep this momentum. Hopefully, we will.”