Prep boys hoops: ’Toppers down Sundevils

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Los Alamos beats Española Valley for first time since 2011-12 season

By Jose Corral

The Los Alamos boys basketball team’s district title hopes will depend on what team shows up.
If the Hilltoppers team that played in the first half of their game against Del Norte Friday shows up, hopes will be slim. But if the second half team and the team that upended defending state champion Española Valley Monday shows up, Los Alamos will be right in the midst of the District 2-5A title talks.
The Hilltoppers took down the rival Sundevils, 55-48, in front of a ruckus crowd at Griffith Gym. It was Los Alamos’ first win against Española since the 2011-2012 season, ending a nine-game losing streak against the Sundevils.
“There’s always that stigma of playing Española and trying to beat them,” Los Alamos coach Mike Kluk said. “This team (Los Alamos) has kind of struggled with its identity and its confidence a bit, but hopefully this is a big confidence builder.”
Los Alamos improved to 10-12 overall and 2-3 in District 2-5A, while keeping pace with the middle teams in the district standings. The win put Los Alamos ahead of 2-3 Albuquerque Academy and one game behind 3-2 Española.
“It’s huge in the district,” Kluk said about what the win meant as far as district standings. “We can tighten this thing up and maybe get a two seed or at least a three seed (for the district tournament). Maybe that’ll be enough to get us in the state tournament.”
The Hilltoppers led 41-34 going into the fourth quarter, after Brandan Duran hit a triple with 20 seconds left in the third quarter. An Azaziah Salazar jumper cut the Los Alamos lead to 49-44 with 3:17 remaining in the game. In the ladder stages, the Hilltoppers kept the game alive by not converting free throws, including two missed free throws by Jack Stewart with 22 seconds left.
Española wasn’t able to capitalize on the ample opportunities, missing a mid-range jumper and two three pointers in the final minute.
“Everybody did their job and played their role,” Kluk said. “The guards did a good job handling the ball. Overall, it was just a great effort. That was probably our best team effort of the year. I hope they can sustain it.”
Los Alamos took charge of the game in the second quarter, starting with a Ramon Roybal 3-pointer that extended the Hilltoppers lead to 24-15 with 5:31 before halftime. Los Alamos added to its lead after Antonio Trujillo made it 29-17 with a triple.
The Hilltoppers lead grew in the second quarter in large part because of their defensive effort. The Sundevils didn’t score in the second quarter until the 5:05 mark and were held to only three points in the frame.  That stellar defensive performance helped Los Alamos take a 29-18 lead at halftime.
Española did respond in the third quarter, starting the period on an 8-1 run to cut Los Alamos’ lead to 30-26 with 5:47 left in the frame. The Sundevils got even closer after Christian Fernandez grabbed a steal and converted a layup at the other end to cut the Hilltoppers lead to 34-33 with 3:50 left in the third.
But that was as close as Española got. Isaac Fason put back a missed shot to make it 38-33 before Duran’s 3-pointer.
“We could’ve puckered and folded right there,” Kluk said, “But we didn’t and that was good to see. If was one of the most unselfish games we’ve had.”
Roybal finished with 10 points, while Cade Gasway scored 10 to lead Los Alamos. Trujillo and Ivan Balakirev added nine points, respectively.
Azaziah Salazar paced Española with a game-high 18 points, while Josh Salazar scored 16, including five 3-pointers.
The Hilltoppers will host Academy at 7 p.m. tonight at Griffith Gym.
“If they play the way they played tonight, I think they can sustain it,” Kluk said. “We’re still trying to find it. Granted (Española) lost to Academy and they’ve peeked out a bunch of wins lately, but it’s huge.”  
‘Toppers fall short against Del Norte
A Los Alamos comeback effort fell short Friday against Del Norte.
After trailing 28-12 at halftime, the Hilltoppers scored 46 points in the second half but lost their third district game, falling 60-58 against Del Norte in Albuquerque.
“They came out in the second half in more an attacking mode,” Kluk said. “In the first half, they were just to hesitant and that cost them dearly. They just never got any confidence. Del Norte just punked us and got us back in our heels.”
The Hilltoppers hindered themselves by turning over the ball 15 times in the first half. The ball security got better in the second half which led to Los Alamos’ comeback effort, which started after an Adam Paulson layup cut the Knights lead to 37-24 with 3:12 left in the third.
Trujillo hit a 3-pointer that cut Del Norte’s lead to 41-32 with 10 seconds remaining in the third frame.  Another Trujillo triple got the Hilltoppers even closer and cut the Knights lead to 46-39. Fason made it 55-53 with just under a minute to play, before Del Norte’s Daniel Flores sealed it from the free throw line.
“We attacked and once we caught the ball we looked up the floor right away,” Trujillo said of his team’s second half success. “When we’re an attacking team, there’s really no one who can stay with us.”
The Knights dominated the opening 16 minutes. Just like in the team’s first meeting, Flores took over and menaced the Hilltoppers defense, finding space in the paint and providing precise passes to his teammates. Flores scored 10 of his game-high 22 points in first half, helping Del Norte garner a 25-10 lead with 2:18 left in the second quarter.
“We kind of hit our stride in the middle of the season and we beat some good teams,” Trujillo said. “After the loss to Taos, that just kind of shook our confidence. Hopefully this can be a confidence builder. Of course we lost and played a terrible first half, but we won the second half and it’s just going to build our confidence.”
Trujillo and Fason scored 16 points, respectively, while Paulson finished with four blocks.