Boys basketball: Toppers take Sartans to the wire but fall at home

-A A +A
By Mike Cote

The assignment in front of the Los Alamos Hilltopper boys varsity basketball team Tuesday was a sizeable one.The ’Toppers were looking for an end to their three-game losing streak, looking for some momentum and looking to do it against one of the top-rated Class AAAA teams in the state.Although Los Alamos put together one of its best total-team efforts of the season, it still fell short Tuesday night, dropping a nondistrict contest to the St. Pius X Sartans, 69-65.Both teams played well throughout the contest, in which neither team opened up a lead bigger than six points. But St. Pius, after falling behind 14-8 after one period, came back to score 21 points in a track meet style second period. Josh Lujan of St. Pius converted on a fast break opportunity to give the Sartans a 23-22 edge and would lead until the waning minutes of regulation.With 2:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, Hilltopper guard Nik Allen canned a pair of free throws to knot the game at 60, but a late game-icing turnover with just 5.9 seconds left would prove to be costly.It was a rough, hard-nosed contest that would ultimately be determined by foul shooting.“It was tough on both sides,” Los Alamos center Alex Kirk said after the game. “We played each other hard.”But the Sartans, as did the Pojoaque Elks in a tight-fought contest Saturday at Griffith Gym, made frequent visits to the free throw line in the fourth quarter and converted 15 of their 22 opportunities.For the game, St. Pius was 23-for-35 from the stripe, while Los Alamos was 8-for-13. The Sartans’ nearly 3-to-1 foul shot advantage wasn’t something that escaped Hilltopper head coach Alan Kirk’s notice.“I’m shocked they got 35 free throws,” he said. “Our team gets 13 and the other team gets 35. There was about as much contact on one end of the floor as the other.”Chris Johansen, St. Pius’ forward who is regarded as one of the best players in Class AAAA, lived up to his billing Tuesday, dropping in 26 points on 9 of 16 shooting from the floor. In addition to the 26 points, Johansen had some key rebounds on both ends of the floor, the biggest being an offensive rebound and putback with 1:48 left in regulation to give the Sartans a 64-60 edge.“You almost get spoiled with a kid like that,” St. Pius head coach Damian Segura said of his star player. “He’s been playing with us for three years with solid production all of that time...and he’s a better kid than he is a player.”Johansen led a trio of Sartans in double-figures Tuesday. Teammates John Ramirez and Paul Jesson both finished with 12, all but three of Jesson’s points coming at the free throw line on a 9 of 10 performance there.Los Alamos would counter quite well with Ben and Nik Allen on the perimeter and driving through the paint, as well as Kirk in the low post.Ben Allen led the ’Toppers with 22 points, 11 of those coming in the third quarter on 5 of 6 shooting from the floor. Twin brother Nik had 7 of his 17 in the fourth quarter, including an old-fashioned 3-point play on an aggressive drive through the teeth of the St. Pius defense, putting Los Alamos within one point with 5:35 to go.Ben and Nik Allen combined to go 15 of 28 from the field and 7 of 8 from the foul line.Kirk, who was beaten on and beaten up in the key the entire game, made it to the foul line just twice. He still finished with 13 points. Defensively, Kirk again came up huge, blocking six shots, this even though St. Pius (10-3) did a fair job of putting shots up over his extensive reach.Although the defense throughout Tuesday’s game was better than the 69 points allowed might indicate, Alex Kirk said he would rather have seen the ’Toppers play better against the Sartan offense in the fourth quarter.“We gave up some layups,” he said. “We made some good plays, but the defense wasn’t as tough...We played such good defense. It wasn’t a letdown (in the fourth quarter). They’re hard to stop. They hit some tough shots and got to the line.”Kirk said that when Martin Romero fouled out at the 5:00 mark of the fourth quarter and Ben Allen at the 1:28 mark, it made a difficult defensive task even tougher.While Los Alamos (10-6) will have two more chances this week to snap out of its current four-game funk, it won’t simply be a matter of just breaking back into the win column. Los Alamos will need to build some much-needed momentum heading into District 2AAAA play which kicks off in a mere seven days.Segura said after the game that while his team is going to get its District 5AAAA schedule rolling soon, the toughest district top-to-bottom in the AAAA may well be District 2.Coach Kirk said he hasn’t been disappointed with the way his team’s played during the current slide, but he also knows what his team’s going to have to work on before opening at Taos Jan. 23.“The offense is good,” Kirk said. “We’ve been creating some interesting mismatches that people will have to deal with.“This week in practice, we’ll work on getting some other guys to create,” he said.Doug Hardy had 8 points coming off the bench Tuesday, while Michael Helland had 5.

JV: St. Pius 55, Los Alamos 48The Hilltopper junior varsity hung tough with a solid Sartan JV Tuesday, but could never close the small gap that the Sartans held onto through the fourth quarter.The two teams were tied at 22-22 at the break, but St. Pius would move out to 38-32 edge after three periods.Los Alamos cut the St. Pius lead to two on several occasions but St. Pius would bounce back quickly to move up again. Los Alamos’ 9-for-22 performance from the free throw line Tuesday wouldn’t help its cause.Jack Russell had 14 points to lead the Hilltoppers against the Sartans. Austin Wolstein had 9, and Wade Archuleta and Joey Martinez — who was 4-for-4 at the stripe — would finish with 8 apiece.Archuleta and Wolstein also grabbed 8 rebounds each.For the game, Los Alamos finished 15 of 39 from the field.