Boys basketball: LA drops Taos to earn 5th at tourney

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By Mike Cote

JACONA – It’s official. The Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team is on a winning streak.
The Hilltoppers dropped the Taos Tigers in the fifth-place game of the Ben Lujan Invitational Wednesday, earning their second win in a row. The Hilltoppers again struggled in the third quarter Wednesday, but came back in the final quarter, again making good on their free throws late to win.
Los Alamos converted 12 of 15 chances from the stripe in the fourth quarter to pick up a 48-39 victory and the win in the tournament’s consolation bracket.
In addition to hitting free throws late, Los Alamos also outrebounded Taos, a tough, physical team in the paint, throughout the game. Los Alamos guard Bobby Sanders pulled down four key rebounds in the final six minutes, taking one defensive rebound all the way to the other end in transition to score a big bucket with 3:28 remaining.
“We just couldn’t let them get the boards,” Sanders said afterward. “We had to pick it up and do what we needed to do to win.”
Again, the rebounding and foul shooting effort late – much like the day before against Peñasco – helped cover for Los Alamos’ struggling second half offense.
Los Alamos scored just six points in the third quarter, all by guard Nick Baker, and hit just six field goals in the second half.
Taos outscored Los Alamos 8-2 in the final 3:34 of the third quarter to take a short-lived 28-27 lead into the final period.
A pair of quick buckets early in the fourth by Nathan Carver helped regain the lead at 33-31 for the Hilltoppers, but the Hilltoppers would only connect on two other field goals for the balance.
Los Alamos head coach Matt King, in his first year, said he was pleased by the defensive effort but knows the offense, which, now through approximately half of the regular season, has been very spotty and needs to find consistency with less than a month to go before its District 2AAAA opener.
“We got passive in the second half,” King said. “We had a couple of uncontrollable situations...but when we attack, when we stay aggressive, we’re OK.”
The Hilltopper defense, however, has been solid throughout the early schedule. It has held five opponents to under 50 points, including all three teams it faced in this tournament.
With the win Wednesday, Los Alamos (3-8) wrapped up the second of three consecutive tournaments on its schedule.
Los Alamos finished eighth at Albuquerque Academy’s Joe Armijo Classic earlier this month and will finish the month at Roswell’s Poe Corn Invitational, which starts Tuesday.
The Tigers (4-3) scored 12 points in the third quarter to take the lead – guard Pat Martinez’s free throws put them up with 1:03 left – but that would be their most productive offensive period.
Taos connected on 11-for-44 shooting (25 percent) while Los Alamos held it to a no more than three field goals in any quarter.
Martinez had nine points and Michael Gutierrez finished with eight to pace the Tigers’ effort.
For Los Alamos, Travis Richins was named to the All-Tournament Team. Richins, who finished in double figures in all three contests, had 10 points despite missing most of the third quarter with a nosebleed.
Baker and Thomas Russell both finished with 11 points to lead all scorers. Baker scored eight points after the break, while Russell went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
Sanders scored five of his seven points in the final eight minutes.
“I’m glad, I’m happy how we played,” Sanders said. “It’s great to pick up two wins in a row. We’ve still got to get better at not turning the ball over. We’re getting more balanced with post touches and driving and penetrating.”
This was the 11th year of the Ben Lujan boys tournament – the tournament was an all-girls event for eight years before the boys bracket was added – and was the first year that it wasn’t won by either Los Alamos or Pojoaque. Bernalillo, Los Alamos’ District 2AAAA foe, won its first Ben Lujan title with a 47-30 win against Bosque.
In the girls finale, West Las Vegas rolled to a 61-46 win over Taos.