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It was a big night for the seniors on the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team in more ways than one.
In the home season finale for the Hilltoppers, they put together one of their best team showings of the year and did so against their arch-rival, the Española Valley Sundevils.
Los Alamos made key buckets during a big second quarter push that propelled it to a 56-45 win against Española Valley Friday night at Griffith Gymnasium.
It was Senior Night for the Hilltoppers, but the team got contributions from seniors and underclassmen alike. Senior guard Nate Carver dropped in 17 points while sophomore Franklin Archuleta added five points during a 16-4 Los Alamos scoring run in the second quarter.
“We rode the younger guys,” said Los Alamos veteran Thomas Russell following the victory. “They’ve been here the whole season and tonight they stepped up. We almost have to have eight or nine guys that can come off the bench.”
Friday’s first half was in sharp contrast to most of Los Alamos’ first halves this season. Instead of getting off to a sluggish start and having to roar back in the second half – usually to wind up on the short end anyway – Los Alamos came out hot from the get-go.
Carver, who connected on 6 of 7 attempts from the field, buried the first of his four 3-pointers late in the first quarter to tie the score at 10.
While Española Valley would put in a late first quarter bucket to take a 12-10 lead, the 3-ball would set the tone for the rest of the half.
In the second quarter, Carver and Archuleta combined for 10 of the team’s 18 points, while Nick Baker added six more.
The Hilltoppers employed an effective inside-outside offense which made the Sundevils overextend their defense and often left the Hilltoppers with wide-open looks.
For Sundevil head coach Richard Martinez, who led the program to its first-ever state championship last season, the defense has been disappointing in the team’s recent outings.
“They really stretched me out on defense because of their long-range bombers,” said Martinez. “We tried to get out there, but then they would get to the hole.”
The Sundevils have dominated District 2-4A in recent years but will have their streak of regular season district titles snapped this season – either Capital or Bernalillo will finish on top of the 2-4A standings when the regular season concludes next week.
On the other side of the court, Los Alamos was able to limit the touches of Española Valley’s best offensive player, Jeremy Romero.
Romero, who scored 25 points in the teams’ first district meeting Jan. 24, was held to just two points in the first half. He would finish with nine points but spent a good portion of the second half in foul trouble. Romero would foul out with 2:42 remaining in the contest.
Española Valley got a big night from Kyle Gaines, who had a team-high 16 points, but the Sundevils would hit on just 18 of 50 field goal tries.
Griffith Gymnasium saw its biggest crowd of the season Friday with the fans split about 50-50 – Española Valley had significantly outdrawn Los Alamos at Griffith every year for the past four years.
Hilltopper forward Bobby Sanders said the crowd was a big factor in the win, which moved Los Alamos into third place in the 2-4A standings with just one game left to play.
“It felt nice to get something going,” Sanders said. “We knew we could get them back on their heels. We were fired up and we came out to play.”
The Hilltoppers maintained leads between 7 and 10 points for most of the second half, although the Sundevils cut the lead down to 6 with under three minutes to go and had chances to slice the lead down further.
But the Sundevils couldn’t convert on their chances late, while the Hilltoppers might have let their lead slip away with poor foul shooting, particularly in the final quarter. The Hilltoppers finished just 15-for-29 from the line.
For Española Valley, which will likely wind up as either the fourth of fifth seed for the 2-4A tournament – the winner of which is guaranteed an automatic berth into the playoffs – it is in danger of missing out on the postseason entirely and will have to make a deep tournament run just to stay in consideration for an at-large bid.
Los Alamos, hardly a lock for the postseason itself, will also be hoping for a strong finish.
“We know we’re on the bubble for getting to state,” Russell said. “It’s possible to get a No. 2 (in the district tournament), but Capital’s a solid team…This win gets us excited to play Capital.”
The Los Alamos-Capital contest, the finale of the regular season, is slated for Wednesday in Santa Fe. Capital escaped Griffith Gym late last month with a 52-50 win.