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Less than a month ago, the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team was sitting at 1-3 in the District 2-4A standings, languishing near the basement.
But the Hilltoppers pulled things together late in the season and won some big games when they needed to.
Now, the Hilltoppers are headed to the district semifinal contest.
Tuesday night, in front of a hostile crowd at Griffith Gymnasium, the Hilltoppers earned another key victory and took a huge step to gaining a bid into the Class 4A tournament.
Los Alamos withstood a late push by the Española Valley Sundevils, who moved to within two points with three minutes remaining, to win Tuesday’s District 2-4A quarterfinal contest 42-37.
Forward Bobby Sanders had one of the biggest performances of his prep career, while Nick Baker buried a big 3-pointer to quell the Sundevils’ late rally.
With Los Alamos clinging to a 2-point lead with 2:14 left, Baker shook off his defender near the top of the key and connected from long distance to put his team back up by five. Baker’s shot seemed to take the wind out of Española Valley’s sails and all but nailed down Los Alamos’ victory.
“Everybody knows that Nick and Thomas Russell are great players,” Los Alamos head coach Fil Dominguez said. “When you’re a great player, you have that confidence to take that shot...(Nick) is a great player and every coach in this district knows it.”
While it wasn’t the greatest night for the Los Alamos offense, Los Alamos’ defense had one of its finest performances of the season.
Española Valley’s guard-heavy offense is solid both from the outside and on dribble penetration, but the Hillltopper defense put the clamps on the Sundevils most of the night. The Sundevils managed just 11 points in the first half and was held to just two points for the balance of the first quarter following an initial 3-pointer by Jozzeb Martinez in the opening seconds.
Senior Nate Carver said Los Alamos knew it would need a huge defensive showing to come away with a victory.
“We knew their season was on the line and we knew our season was on the line,” Carver said. “The whole thing was effort…Jeremy (Romero) hit some tough shots, but we’re OK with him hitting tough shots. We love to be challenged on defense. Everyone on this team loves defense. We thrive on that.”
Romero, one of the top players in 2-4A, came up big for the Sundevils (10-18 overall, 4-6 in 2-4A) during the fourth quarter. Romero finished with seven of his team-high 15 points, hitting two of his patented turnaround jumpers, and went 3 of 4 at the foul line, his only miss an intentional miss with under a minute remaining.
But Romero’s efforts were counterbalanced Tuesday by Sanders. Sanders had his biggest night of the season, finishing with a game-high 16 points, at one stretch hitting seven consecutive attempts from the floor.
He also grabbed nine rebounds, three on the offensive glass, which led to seven Los Alamos second-chance points.
“I was trying to take advantage of the post as much as I could, get rebounds on the backside, and contribute as much as I could all night,” Sanders said afterward.
Despite the big defensive effort in the first half, that wasn’t translating to many points on the other end for Los Alamos — the Sundevils’ defensive effort was nearly as good as the Hilltoppers’ — but Sanders dropped in eight first half points, equaling the output of the rest of his team.
For the Sundevils, Romero remained a force on the court but he didn’t have a lot of support. Martinez finished with seven points but had just four after his opening 3-pointer. No other Sundevil finished with more than five.
Monday, Española Valley went to triple-overtime in the first round of the tournament, coming away with a 45-44 win over Santa Fe, which was also playing its best basketball late in the season.
The Sundevils, the defending Class 4A champions, may yet be able to sneak into the playoffs as a low seed, but they will be at the mercy of the selection committee. The playoff brackets will be announced Sunday.
The Sundevils do have at least one big factor working in their favor for playoff inclusion, however. They are among the biggest-drawing prep teams in the state.
Tuesday, Sundevil fans outnumbered Hilltopper fans at Griffith Gymnasium by about a 3-1 margin.
Baker, who converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to give Los Alamos a 22-15 advantage midway through the third quarter, had 10 points, while Russell finished with eight points.
, five in the fourth quarter.
The Hilltoppers now advance to play Bernalillo in the 2-4A semifinals. A win would all but assure the Hilltoppers a playoff spot, but Bernalillo has won both the teams’ previous contests.
Sanders said a big team effort will be necessary for the Hilltoppers to pull off an upset Thursday at Bernalillo.
“We definitely need to get Nick and Tom involved into our plays,” Sanders said. “They’re going to face-guard them. We need to play good defense. We can’t let them get it down low or penetrate too much.”