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BERNALILLO — Brandon Saiz had been one of the best players in District 2-4A over the course of the regular season.
But Saiz, point guard of the Bernalillo Spartan basketball team, rolled his ankle last week and was unavailable for Thursday’s District 2-4A semifinal contest.
Things seemed to have stacked up about as well as they could for the Los Alamos Hilltoppers, who had struggled to stop Saiz in two previous meetings between the teams. Additionally, the Hilltoppers were going into the semifinal off a big win against Española Valley.
But Bernalillo, which struggled late in the season, was still up to the task. Bernalillo’s Tristan Arnett and Trey Darnell were virtually automatic from the foul line, hitting a combined 15 of 18 in the fourth quarter as the Spartans knocked off the Hilltoppers 55-49.
It was a disappointing loss for the Hilltoppers (11-17 overall, 4-6 in 2-4A), who must now wait to learn their playoff fate.
Bernalillo did everything it needed to Thursday to claim the win. It played tough pressure defense, holding Los Alamos to just a 7-for-30 performance from the field through 2-1/2 quarters, and crushed Los Alamos on the boards.
Hilltopper head coach Fil Dominguez, who wrapped up his first year coaching Los Alamos, said he wasn’t surprised Bernalillo was up to the challenge without its star player.
“I told my guys not to even think about Saiz not playing,” he said. “When a key player goes down, other guys step it up. Boy, they did that. Arnett had a helluva ballgame tonight.”
Arnett, who filled in at the point guard spot for Saiz, ran the offense effectively enough to get some key buckets and draw key fouls against a stout Hilltopper defense.
Arnett and Darnell, a long-range shooting specialist, combined for 21 points, but between them had just one field goal.
Bernalillo took advantage of the officials’ refusing to call charging fouls — there were no less than five clear charges in the game, none of which were whistled — and late in the contest, with the Hilltoppers down, having to deliberately foul.
The Spartans made it to the foul line 35 times in the game to the Hilltoppers’ eight trips.
For the Hilltoppers, they struggled to find offensive rhythm. Thomas Russell had 23 points hitting 10 of 19 attempts from the field and Bobby Sanders had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Jon Lithgow, one of Bernalillo’s reserves who impressed Spartan head coach Terry Darnell in practice this week and got the starting nod, made the most of his opportunity, scoring 16 points.
Coach Darnell, who put together an outstanding game plan against Los Alamos, said if his team got outmuscled on the boards his team would’ve been in trouble.
“We really emphasized that all week,” Darnell said. “Both times we played them, we didn’t do a good job of boxing out.”
The Spartans (17-10, 5-4) will take on the Capital Jaguars in the 2-4A title game Saturday.
Los Alamos, which will take a couple days off from practice will be hanging out near the computer Sunday when the 4A playoff seedings and selections are announced.
Dominguez said he feels good about his team’s chances of getting in and is hoping for a No. 14 seed or better.