Girls basketball: Toppers ready to open 4A tourney

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By Mike Cote

January definitely wasn’t Piedra Vista’s month.It started off alright for the Panthers, edging out Capital 58-53 in Santa Fe. The rest of the month? Not so good.Piedra Vista dropped six straight in the month of January, a streak that continued through the first week of February before the Panthers were able to right the ship.On the other side of the floor for Friday’s Class AAAA girls basketball tournament first round game are the Los Alamos Hilltoppers, who haven’t lost since mid-January. Los Alamos reeled off nine straight victories to close out the regular season and the District 2AAAA tournament.Los Alamos will host Piedra Vista Friday night at Griffith Gymnasium. The winner of Friday’s game will advance to the state AAAA quarterfinals Tuesday in Rio Rancho.The Hilltoppers (17-9) picked up the fifth seed in the AAAA tournament. With their 64-45 win over Española Valley in Friday’s 2AAAA tournament championship game, they guaranteed themselves a first round home contest.Piedra Vista, meanwhile, was an at-large selection out of District 1AAAA. That district comprised of teams in and around Farmington, sent three teams to the state tournament, including number one seed Kirtland Central.Panther head coach Lee Marett said he was happy to hear that his team got into the state tournament after being frozen out last season with a winning record. Piedra Vista finished 10-16 in the regular season.Marett said January ended up being so tough because his team struggled the entire month with injuries and illnesses.“For the first time in weeks we have everybody healthy,” Marett said. “We’ve had a real problem with that this year.”Among the most troubling injuries was to senior Ashley Ward, a 6-foot-2 center, who missed several games early in the month and had to ease her way back, a big minus for the Panthers.Piedra Vista will be one of the bigger teams Los Alamos has seen this season. After Ward, Piedra Vista has three players listed at 5-9, including senior Gaila Brooks.Los Alamos head coach Gerry Washburn said his team is well aware of Piedra Vista’s big girls, particularly Ward, and should be ready.“It’s really going to depend on how she moves,” Washburn said. “If she moves well, she’ll create problems. But we have a lot of girls that are around 6 feet so we should be alright.”However, the Panthers are hoping to turn the game up-tempo on the Hilltoppers, beating them in transition instead of pounding it inside. Marett, however, said his team has had some success inside and won’t be afraid to go into the paint when necessary.“We’re pretty well-balanced inside-outside when we’re playing well,” he said.Things haven’t come easily this season for the Panthers, however, who lost four starters off their 2006-07 squad, but Marett said his team has turned a corner and is ready for Friday.“I’m hoping we can play well and represent ourselves well,” he said. “When we’re playing well, we’re a good team.”For the Hilltoppers, they will be going into Friday’s game well rested. They will have played just one game in the last two weeks, which Washburn said can make it tough for players to focus, although he didn’t think the ‘Toppers would have a lot of trouble in that regard.Los Alamos is expecting a man-to-man match-up from Piedra Vista, which has been spotty on defense this season. It has held five opponents under 40 points this season, but has also given up some big point totals to teams like Kirtland Central and Navajo Prep.On the other end of the floor, the Panthers have a pair of good outside shooters, Cheree Charley and Janessa Harrison.“We’re going to have to press the ball and handle the outside shots,” Washburn said. “But we’ve had lots of practice covering outside shooters.”With the layoff, the Hilltoppers have had a chance to get healthy, although that wasn’t a big problem prior to the layoff, with only post Bryanna Richins feeling banged-up.

NOTE: Tickets will go on sale at 6 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $5 for adults and students. Only New Mexico Activities Association passes will be accepted. Fans must also enter Griffith Gym through the front door, not the back doors.