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Early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s girls basketball game, Marissa Valencia was sitting firmly at the end of the bench.
In the endgame, Valencia was spearheading a big comeback.
Valencia, the Bernalillo Spartans’ most dangerous player, came up big in the six minutes of the contest, scoring nine points to lead the Spartans to an upset victory over the Los Alamos Hilltoppers at Griffith Gymnasium.
The Hilltoppers, the No. 3 seed in the District 2-4A championship tournament, were knocked out in their first district playoff contest.
The Spartans, who trailed by as many as seven points early in the fourth quarter, finished off the contest on a 10-2 run, earning a 36-33 victory and advancing to the 2-4A semifinal contest.
Los Alamos, meanwhile, will have to wait to learn its playoff fate. Los Alamos, a bubble team heading into Tuesday’s contest, is in serious jeopardy of losing out on a playoff berth after an early district tournament exit.
The loss for the Hilltoppers stung in several ways, not the least of which was that they had chances to close the door on the Spartans, who are playing as well right now as they have all season.
The Hilltoppers bounced back from a horrendous first half, in which they managed just seven points — their saving grace was the Spartans misfired on five shots from inside of five feet — to put together one of their most impressive runs of the season.
In the third quarter, Los Alamos forward Hayley Each dropped in eight of her game-high 15 points as the team put together a 13-2 run extending more than four minutes.
The Hilltoppers led 24-20 after three quarters and opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer from Erin Kirk.
Unfortunately, things would quiet down for the Hilltoppers, while the Spartans would heat up.
“We had a couple of turnovers at bad times,” Los Alamos head coach Tarah Logan said. “They took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, Valencia, who had a quiet game up to that point, got red hot. She buried a 3-pointer with 5:18 remaining to spark the Spartans’ comeback following a huge offensive rebound by veteran post player Cedar-Rain Yellowmule.
Tuesday’s meeting was the rubber match between the two teams, which had split their district regular season meetings. As in their previous meeting Feb. 3 at Bernalillo, things got hairy at the end.
In the Feb. 3 game, Bernalillo took a late 1-point lead, but Spartan head coach Jeff King tried to call a timeout with under three seconds remaining, but King didn’t have a timeout. Los Alamos, however, couldn’t convert either of the ensuing technical foul free throws.
Tuesday, Los Alamos, which struggled from the foul line as well as the field, missed just one free throw in the fourth quarter, but that free throw miss was a big one — an air ball on the front end of a 1-and-1 chance with 21.9 seconds remaining.
With under nine seconds left, Valencia was sent to the foul line for a 1-and-1 chance and sank two pretty free throws to give the Spartans a 34-33 lead, their first lead since early in the third quarter.
Los Alamos, with no timeouts remaining, tried to push the ball downcourt for a final shot, but Valencia stole a pass at half court and waltzed in for a layup at the buzzer.
Other than the Hilltoppers’ third quarter run and the Spartans’ run to close out the contest, neither offense looked particularly sharp Tuesday. Logan credited her defense for a good showing through the bulk of the contest.
“The girls did a good job of trying to stop their drives,” said Logan. “It was really the help defense that made the difference. We got beat a couple of times up top, but the help defense was able to come in.”
The win for the Spartans (14-13 overall, 5-5 in 2-4A) may well have secured them a berth in the Class 4A playoffs. They advance to play No. 2 seed Santa Fe Thursday night in the 2-4A semifinal.
Following the game, Logan said she still liked her team’s chances to earn an at-large bid into the playoffs — the Hilltoppers’ 12-15 record is as good as or better than most of the other 4A bubble teams, and their 7-9 record against 4A competitors, plus victories over Albuquerque Academy and St. Pius X should help when the NMAA’s seeding and selection committee makes its playoff announcements Sunday.