Boys basketball: LA advances to Ben Lujan finale with win

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By Mike Cote

JACONA – A late fourth quarter by the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team propelled it to tonight’s final of the Ben Lujan Invitational.

After being all knotted up after three quarters and trailing by three with just over three minutes remaining in regulation, Los Alamos went on an impressive 11-0 run to close out Tuesday night’s semifinal tournament game against a very dangerous opponent, the Grants Pirates.

Hilltopper star center Alex Kirk had seven points in the final period, while Austin Wolstein and Zach Parks combined for eight points, with Parks knocking down a big pair of free throws with under a minute remaining to give the Hilltoppers a 50-42 victory.

Tonight’s game pits the Hilltoppers and the Pojoaque Elks, the tournament hosts, who downed Kirtland Central 72-55 in Tuesday’s other semifinal. Either the Hilltoppers or Elks have won the Ben Lujan boys competition in each of its previous nine years of tournament play.

Los Alamos will be going for its second-straight Ben Lujan victory tonight. It beat Socorro, the team Los Alamos beat Monday to advance to Tuesday’s semifinal, in the tournament championship game a year ago.

Aside from getting the Hilltoppers (8-2) to the tournament final, they also earned an important victory. The Grants Pirates (10-2) went into the game with the most wins of any team in Class AAAA and No. 7 ranking in last week’s statewide coaches poll.

The Pirates displayed a deliberate offense designed to open up their very potent long-range shooters Isaiah Whitmore and Brandon Rael.

While Whitmore and Rael combined for six 3-pointers on the day, it was a far better showing Tuesday for the Los Alamos perimeter defense, which had struggled in recent games.

On the other side of the court, Los Alamos moved the ball very well on the interior, got to the foul line late and knocked down its foul shots.

“I think we held our composure at the end,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “We did what we needed to do. We didn’t use Alex as much on the inside (Tuesday). We kept him high so he could feed the cutters.”

Kirk, who came into the game after an 8-assist performance Monday night against Socorro, finished with four assists. The big beneficiary of Kirk’s spot-on interior passing was Wolstein, who dropped in a career-high 19 points hitting all nine of his shot attempts from the floor.

Wolstein has come up big for Los Alamos in the first two games of the tournament, finishing with 15 points the night before, second on the team behind only Kirk’s 19.

Kirk had 14 points — he was held to just four in the first half — hitting 5 of 6 from the free throw line in the final quarter. On defense, Kirk blocked six shots.

Grants went up 42-39 with just 3:05 remaining in the final quarter with a quick drive from the baseline by Chris Lopez for a bucket.

From that point on, however, Los Alamos wouldn’t surrender another point. Los Alamos’ defense stiffened with guard Wade Archuleta stealing a Grants pass near midcourt and finding Brandon Owens on the other end to tie the score with 2:26 to go.

In the final 1:15 of the contest, Kirk and Parks dropped in both ends of 1-and-1 chances to help seal the victory.

Parks, who finished the game with 11 points, said he knew going in that Grants would be a challenge.

“It’s tough because they’re really disciplined,” Parks said. “They told us coming in they would be a disciplined team. We didn’t know it was going to be that slow, but we knew they weren’t going to take a lot of bad shots.”

Grants attempted just 36 shots in the game, the same number attempted by Los Alamos, but connected on just 13 of them. By contrast, Los Alamos converted 20 of their attempts (55.6 percent).

Whitmore finished with 15 points, but had just three points after the half. Rael added 10 points and three other Pirates finished with five points.