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Hope advances to tourney final

Hope Christian’s Johnnie Nitafan, right, tries to steal the ball from Taos’ Martin Jaramillo in Friday night’s game at Hope. The host Huskies prevailed. MARLA BROSE/JOURNAL

It’s been a relatively rough start to the season – at least by its own lofty standards – for the Hope Christian boys basketball team.

The Huskies emerged from their traditionally tough nondistrict slate, which featured almost exclusively Class 6A opponents, with a somewhat pedestrian 7-7 mark. They improved to 9-7 by pulling away late from Taos for an 81-70 victory in the semifinals of the Hope Invitational on Friday night on their home floor.

Hope will play Bloomfield in the championship game today at 7:30 p.m.

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To put things in perspective, the seven losses by mid-January is more than any of the previous four Hope teams had all season, all of which won state titles.

Still, it’s not necessarily time to panic for one of the state’s most dominant programs, which has captured five straight blue trophies and eight in nine years overall. The Huskies are accustomed to rolling against Class 4A competition, and coach Jim Murphy believes this year’s group is still finding its way.

“We’re just a young team as far as closing out some games. We’ve played some really good teams – not that we haven’t in the past – but this is kind of an inexperienced group,” Murphy said. “They’re still looking for some leadership. I think we’re just trying to figure it out. Hopefully that hard schedule will start paying some dividends now that we start playing the district games come next week. We’re a work in progress, no doubt.”

Four players – Isaiah Dockery, Preston Ulibarri, Chris Ward and Collin Evans – on this year’s team received playing time in last season’s championship-game victory over Portales. Dockery scored 22 against Taos on Friday, while Evans added 12 and Ward chipped in 11. Junior Johnnie Nitafan had a game-high 25 for the Huskies.

Ward, an undersized senior post, recognizes that it will be a different road if Hope is to win it all again.

“This year we’re not as tall. We don’t have as many scorers. But I consider us to still be lethal,” Ward said. “I know deep down we are competitive when we play as a team. Tonight was a great example: When we play as a team, we win.”

The last time Hope Christian had as many as seven losses was 2012-13. That team began 10-11, and things still turned out all right that year for the Huskies.

“My youngest son was on that team and at the end of the day he says, ‘We had 11 losses and we won (10) straight. You guys can do that,’ ” Murphy said. “That’s ultimately our goal. We went down to Clovis and Hobbs that year. We competed well and lost both games. I think coming back from that, we started to find ourself. Hopefully this team finds itself. We’re still looking for that.”

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In the other boys semifinal, Bloomfield beat West Las Vegas 51-48.

• The girls championship game of the Hope tournament, which tips off at 5 p.m. today, features defending Class 4A state champ Shiprock and Bloomfield.

Bloomfield, which had already lost two games this season to Los Lunas – including one by 36 points two weeks ago – upset the Tigers, rallying to win 54-48 in Friday’s semifinals. In a rematch of the 2017 state final, Shiprock belted the host team, 62-45.

• Also of note, Cottonwood Classical replaced Valley in the girls’ event Friday, as the Vikings could not have finished the tournament without exceeding its’ 24-game, regular-season limit. Cottonwood was beaten 73-25 by West Las Vegas on Friday in the consolation bracket.

– Tristen Critchfield

ALSO FRIDAY: Lawrence Calais, Tyler Aeilts and Cristian Ramirez combined to score 69 points, leading La Cueva’s boys to an 89-87 victory over visiting Albuquerque High on Friday night. Calais and Ramirez each had five 3-pointers in the win, which was No. 697 in the career of Bears head coach Frank Castillo.

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