Girls basketball: Best time of year for hoops fans

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By Mike Cote

Now it counts.

Tonight the Los Alamos Hilltopper girls varsity basketball team will host the Taos Tigers in the District 2AAAA opener for both teams.

This is the favorite time of year for basketball fans around the state, as most prep hoops teams get their respective districts started this week.

The players are psyched, too.

"It all starts when district starts," Los Alamos two-guard Sarah Ethridge said.

The Hilltoppers head into 2AAAA play as the favorites to pick up their third straight district championship.

Los Alamos has shown flashes of brilliance in its nondistrict schedule, which concluded Saturday in a 51-45 loss to St. Pius X. Other times, it has shown a lack of experience stemming from a team that had only three players with meaningful varsity playing time coming into the 2007-2008 season.

But the Hilltoppers have advantages in size and athleticism which should serve them well in making their run to a district title.

Hilltopper 5-foot-11 post Taylor Ealey, a sophomore, has emerged this season as a top scoring threat. So far in 2007-2008, Ealey has set a career high of 24 points in a game against El Paso Andress during the New Mexico State University Holiday Hoop-la Dec. 28, only to break that with 27 points eight days later against Santa Fe.

Against St. Pius, Ealey finished with 20 points, eight of those coming in an otherwise dry stretch in the second quarter for Los Alamos.

In the loss to St. Pius — a former member of 2AAAA and one of the premier girls hoops programs in the state — Los Alamos got ahead of itself on several occasions, trying to make long passes down the floor, most of which ended up as turnovers.

In order for Los Alamos to be successful during the 2AAAA season, it will have to settle into its potent half-court offense, something that head coach Gerry Washburn has been stressing all season.

"We run the floor fairly well," Washburn said after Saturday's loss. "We've got some kids that can flat-out run, but to win a championship, we've got to play half-court basketball."

Los Alamos' strength this season, however, has been its defense, which has kept it in virtually every game. Los Alamos is surrendering just 43.3 points per game and has held eight opponents to under 40.

The Hilltoppers (8-9) head into tonight's game against the Tigers (7-10) in the midst of a three-game losing streak, dropping them below the .500-mark for the second time this season.

Washburn said his nondistrict schedule was purposely made as difficult as possible to get his squad ready for a run in district and, hopefully, in the state tournament.

The winner of the regular season district championship gets an automatic bid into both the 2AAAA championship tournament game and the state tournament.

Taos has lost two straight games going into tonight's contest in Griffith Gymnasium, having lost to Pojoaque (60-41) and St. Michael's (50-40), teams that have also beaten Los Alamos this season.

The Tigers have a decent record compared to a lot of the teams in AAAA — currently only nine of the 22 AAAA teams have winning marks, none in 2AAAA — but have no wins against a Class AAAA or AAAAA opponent.

Additionally, the Tigers are about equal in age to the Hilltoppers, with just two seniors listed on their roster.

While the 'Toppers are favored in district, the team is well aware there's plenty of basketball to be played before anything's determined.

"We can't go in saying we're district champs," Ethridge said. "We still have to beat them. We've got to take it one game at a time."