LA meets familiar foe Friday night

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By Mike Cote

It’s one of the more interesting match-ups of the first round of the Class AAAA girls basketball state tournament.

Friday night, the Los Alamos Hilltoppers will take on the St. Pius X Sartans. Game time is set for 7 p.m. at Griffith Gymnasium.

While it’s rare that a No. 5 seed, like the Hilltoppers, meets an interesting 12th-seeded opponent, Friday’s game is the exception rather than the rule.

Los Alamos and St. Pius have plenty of history, some of that coming this season.

St. Pius was a district opponent of Los Alamos between 2000-2005 when the Sartans were moved out of District 2AAAA and placed in District 6AAAA alongside teams like Belen and Grants.

Although Los Alamos head coach Tarah Logan said St. Pius is possibly the most dangerous team in the bottom half of the seeding, she welcomes the challenge.

“I’m glad they’re able to (come to Los Alamos),” Logan said. “It’s a great rivalry. It’s a healthy rivalry.”

The two teams played some hard-fought contests throughout their time in District 2. Since then, they’ve also had some knock-down, drag-out fights, including a pair of those this season.

The two teams split their regular season contests in 2009-10, with the Hilltoppers winning on a neutral floor in mid-December and the Sartans downing the Hilltoppers at home in late January.

Los Alamos topped St. Pius 49-44 at the Joe Armijo Invitational, hosted by another rival of both schools, Albuquerque Academy, in December. It was one of Los Alamos’ better games of the early part of the season, in which Los Alamos’ star forward Taylor Ealey finished with 12 points and guard Sarah Worland finished with 11 points.

In the Jan. 25 contest against Los Alamos — the game was originally scheduled for Jan. 9 but was postponed due to a power outage that affected only a few parts of the town, but one of those was Griffith Gymnasium — St. Pius came back from a 37-26 hole early in the fourth quarter.

The Sartans shut the Hilltoppers out for more than 6 minutes, however, going on a 14-0 run to win the game 40-37.

In the fourth quarter, the Sartans put in a full-court trap and forced 10 turnovers in that period to spark the comeback.

“I think it was a little bit of desperation,” St. Pius head coach Phil Griego said. “The game was slipping away from us and the kids recognized that. The pressure we used earlier was basically ineffective…but in the fourth quarter, once we got that first turnover and that first basket, it’s like we got the snowball rolling.”

Logan said she thinks the fourth quarter comeback by St. Pius was due to some crafty maneuvering by Griego, who has steered that program to two state championships in the past three years, including last season when it knocked off perennial powerhouse Kirtland Central in the AAAA title game, 57-48.

“Coach Griego is incredibly intelligent,” Logan said. “In the first half, they threw in a lazy press. It was man pressure that we broke with no problem. He let us relax. Then in the fourth quarter, he pulled out this 2-1-2 press. Even though we’ve seen it before, we weren’t ready for it. It was incredibly good strategy on his part.”

That win over Los Alamos helped to jump-start St. Pius’ season. Going into that contest, St. Pius had posted a mediocre record of just 7-8, but from that point on would go on to win 8 of its next 10.

Griego said the early part of the season had been rough for his team because of a general lack it had of varsity experience — while the team had seven returners from last year, only three of them saw much playing time. When the end of January rolled around, he said, things started to pick up.

Griego said he was hoping for his team to crack the top eight when the AAAA bracket was announced earlier this week, but coming from a No. 12 spot, he said there isn’t a lot of pressure on his team, despite the fact it’s still the reigning champ.

“It’s kind of funny,” he said. “Nobody has any expectations for us. We won the district tournament and we got the 12 seed. Clearly, there’s not a lot of respect. The two state championships don’t  mean anything. This team has to create its own path.”

That loss for the Hilltoppers (19-10) snapped a 7-game winning streak, their longest of the season.

After starting 2009-10 just 4-6, Los Alamos finished the regular season winning 14 of its last 16 games.

Unfortunately, the postseason so far hasn’t gone the way Los Alamos had hoped it would. The Hilltoppers dropped two of their three games last week to the Española Valley Sundevils. A win in either game would’ve given the Hilltoppers at least a share of this year’s 2AAAA title.

In the 2AAAA tournament title game, the Hilltoppers struggled with their shooting in a 54-38 loss, nearly identical results to the Hilltoppers’ 55-39 loss to the Sundevils three days earlier.

Logan said the primary focus of practice this week has been offense, particularly shooting and free throw shooting, which was also subpar in the two losses.

At practice earlier this week, some Hilltopper alumni were brought in to pressure the post players, something Ealey and Shelby Courtright will likely see a lot of in the playoffs.

While practice has generally gone well for Los Alamos this week, Logan said she’s hoping it will translate well come Friday.

“For us, it’s not a learning issue,” she said. “It’s an execution issue.”

Los Alamos could potentially see a string of familiar opponents, depending on how deep it can advance in the AAAA tournament.

Should Los Alamos get by St. Pius Friday night, it would have a likely contest in the state quarterfinals against Española Valley, which has won three of the teams’ four head-to-head contests this season. A win for Los Alamos in that game would likely result in a semifinal meeting with the tournament’s top seed, Kirtland Central, which Los Alamos met in late December.