Late free throw lifts LA over St. Pius

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By Mike Cote

In a matter of minutes, the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls basketball team went from solid lead to almost certain overtime to a chance to win with under two seconds remaining Friday night.
In the process, the Hilltoppers picked up an important win over a Class 4A opponent, something it badly needed.
After an offensively-sluggish contest, the Hilltoppers started to pull away from the St. Pius X Sartans midway through the fourth quarter Friday, taking a 31-23 lead with about five minutes to go. The Sartans, who had gotten little going on their side of the court for the bulk of the contest, put together a rally that would tie the score with just 6.0 seconds left.
But, with Los Alamos struggling to get down the court before the buzzer, a pair of Sartans inexplicably hacked Hilltopper guard Marissa Higdon in the backcourt with just 1.9 second remaining. That gave Higdon a 1-and-1 chance at the foul line.
“Relax. That was all we were talking about in the huddle, was just relax,” Higdon said as she strode to the stripe. “We’ve practiced these so much, there was no way you can’t make it.”
With a potential trip to overtime on the line, Higdon’s first shot bounced almost straight up from the back of the iron and through the net, giving the Hilltoppers a 34-33 edge. Her second shot rattled out of the cylinder, but time expired before either team could get a handle on it.
Los Alamos (6-9) survived the scare and in doing so earned a much-needed win. In the previous three weeks, Los Alamos had struggled, being on the wrong end of lopsided decisions to Piedra Vista, Kirtland Central and Roswell, all top-10 teams.
St. Pius, sitting at No. 10 in the 4A polls despite limping to a 4-8 record going in, would’ve made things very difficult for the Hilltoppers to get an at-large invitation into the 4A playoffs this season had it come away with a victory.
Instead, the Hilltoppers improved their record against 4A foes to 4-3.
Los Alamos head coach Tarah Logan said although her team had also lost earlier this week to Class 5A Volcano Vista, she felt much better about her team’s performance heading into the St. Pius tilt.
“I felt like we were playing together better as a team,” Logan said. “Tonight was the next step up. Marissa’s free throw was huge.”
The game-icing free throw was Higdon’s only point of the night.
Much of the Hilltoppers’ offensive punch was generated by Hayley Each. Each, who tied with St. Pius’ Minnie Estrada for high-point honors with 14, dropped in eight points in the second quarter and added four more in the fourth. Each hit a pair of free throws at the 1:51 mark to put Los Alamos up 33-31, temporarily quelling an 8-0 Sartan run.
McKenzie Logan finished the contest with nine points, but left the game with under a minute remaining after running into a Sartan player’s leg on a loose-ball scramble. Logan lay on the floor for about three minutes before walking off under her own power.
Aside from Logan and Each, however, no Hilltopper finished with more than three points.
The two teams combined for just eight points in the first quarter, four of those coming in just a little over a minute with a pair of quick Hilltopper field goals. St. Pius wouldn’t convert its first field goal until the 4:59 mark of the second quarter.
Neither team shot well Friday, with the Hilltoppers converting at a 30.4 percent clip in the first half and the Sartans shooting under 25 percent for the whole contest.
Saturday, the Hilltoppers were doubled-up by the Sandia Matadors, 50-25. It was the second time this season they’ve lost to the Matadors.
Los Alamos has just one contest remaining, Tuesday against Belen, before the start of the district season, so a win against a quality opponent like the Sartans comes at a good time.
“This was really important,” Higdon said. “This was one of our best games as a team. We have a skilled, talented team, we just have to pull together.”