Boys basketball: Toppers hang on after late Eagles rally

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By Mike Cote

It was a wild finish to a wild contest, but the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys basketball team made the plays it had to make down the stretch Tuesday.

Los Alamos appeared to have a win all locked up at home Tuesday night against Belen, but an 18-5 scoring run spanning about 4-1/2 minutes by Belen got it back within a point late.

However, Hilltopper center Alex Kirk hit a short jumper with :31 remaining and connected on both ends of a 1-and-1 chance from the free throw line to preserve a 67-62 win over Belen’s Eagles at Griffith Gymnasium.

Early in the fourth quarter it looked like Los Alamos would cruise to its fourth straight win after Doug Hardy’s fast break layup gave the squad a 54-40 edge with under six minutes to play.

But the momentum shifted in the Eagles’ favor in a hurry.

“We got complacent,” Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk said. “We started rushing, we started not doing the things that are successful for us. There was a good up-tempo to the game…but we got into a rush trying to extend the lead and we were not doing the things that got us the lead.”

Prior to the start of the season, the Hilltoppers had Tuesday night’s game circled on their calendars as a benchmark contest. The Eagles (3-2) gave the Hilltoppers a run for their money a year ago at Belen and they had most of their players back from that squad.

Los Alamos was expecting a hard-nosed, physical contest, and that’s exactly what it got Tuesday.

Belen came out wanting to pressure the Hilltopper guards early. While the pressure was initially successful — Los Alamos turned the ball over 11 times in the first half — Belen wasn’t converting on the offensive end, in no small part due to 11 first half turnovers of its own. Belen was also stymied by Alex Kirk, Los Alamos’ 6-foot-11 junior, who swatted five shots in the first half.

Kirk, although being held to 27 points, slightly below his average of 30.6 points per game coming in, still posted his third triple-double of the young season. Kirk pulled down 14 rebounds and blocked 12 shots in the contest.

Also helping to lead the defensive charge Tuesday were Hardy and Jack Russell, who combined for four steals in the opening half.

Russell had 14 points and four rebounds in the victory.

“This was a big win,” Russell said after the game. “They’re a good team. This is getting us ready for Academy on Thursday. They were taller than us, but we were able to overcome that and play a good game.”

Los Alamos led 28-26 at the break. Following a short-lived 29-28 lead by the Eagles early in the second half, their first lead since the first quarter, Los Alamos outscored Belen 17-5 the rest of the third quarter.

Early in the fourth quarter, Russell buried a 3-pointer, set-up by a big offensive rebound from Michael Helland to take a 15-point advantage.

But the Eagles, behind a red-hot fourth quarter shooting effort from Lawrence Armijo, who had been silent throughout the first three quarters, sliced the lead down to 59-58 with 1:26 remaining.

Joshua Mattox had 23 points for Belen, while Armijo picked up nine points in the final quarter.

Hardy led Los Alamos (5-1) with six assists, while Helland had three and Zach Parks two. Hardy also finished with four rebounds.

Kirk made a big defensive stand at one point in the third quarter, blocking three consecutive Eagle shots which eventually became a Russell transition bucket on the other end.

Next up for the Hilltoppers is an appearance at the Albuquerque Academy Invitational where it will face the host Chargers (3-3), the top-ranked team in the New Mexico High School Coaches Association’s first poll of the season, which was released last week.

The tournament’s field is a grueling one, with four Class 5A squads and two other upper-echelon squads, St. Pius X and Hope Christian.

“I’d like to see us put together a good showing,” Kirk said. “It’s even going to be a battle for the seventh-place teams. Can we put three games together back-to-back-to-back? We’ll see.”

Belen JV 47,

Los Alamos JV 36

While the Los Alamos junior varsity basketball team was able to hold the Belen Eagles to just eight points in the middle quarters of Tuesday’s game, the Eagles dominated the bookend quarters.

The Hilltoppers allowed just two points in the second quarter and six in the third quarter to tie the score at 24, but the Eagles dropped in 23 points in the final eight minutes to take the contest 47-36 Tuesday night.

JR Chalmers had eight points to lead the Hilltoppers, while Ryan Schleft finished with six and Kirk Webber added five.

Carlos Garcia had 15 points for the Eagles.

Los Alamos’ JV is off until Dec. 27.