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Taylor Null puts up a basket during the first quarter Thursday against Chaparral at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Taylor Null puts up a basket during the first quarter Thursday against Chaparral at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

With less than a full day of practice time as a complete squad under their belts, the City of Champions Classic is something of a trial by fire for the Bulldog basketball team.

Having just integrated members of the Artesia football squad this week, the ‘Dogs have had no quality time in the gym. And unfortunately, it showed Thursday night in their tournament opener against Chaparral.

The Artesia boys shot just 26 percent from the field on the game and missed 17 free throws en route to a four-point loss to the Lobos, 38-34. But while the team is obviously disappointed in the showing, head coach Michael Mondragon is keeping their focus on the simple theme of the next few weeks of basketball: improvement.

“I know the kids are playing hard,” Mondragon said today. “They’re getting after it. We’re just not executing very well right now, and that’s 90 percent due to not having practiced.”

The Bulldogs managed just a single basket in the opening quarter Thursday against Chaparral, that coming courtesy of Tim Morrison with 1:25 to go in the period. A Morrison free throw at the three-minute mark had put the ‘Dogs initially on the board, and a trio from the stripe by Carlos Caldera – the result of a foul on a half-court shot at the buzzer – comprised the remainder of Artesia’s six points.

Still, the Bulldogs were down by just seven going into the second, and following an Ethan Duff three-pointer with 5:16 remaining in the half, the team perked up offensively. Taylor Null and Bruce Bates posted back-to-back baskets, and a Duff jumper and breakaway layup by Carlos Carrasco in the final seconds helped Artesia pull within two, 20-18, of the Lobos at intermission.

But the ‘Dogs’ shooting woes would continue in the second half.

A seven-point run to start the third that included layups by Null and Bates gave Artesia its first lead of the night, 25-23, with just under six minutes to go in the quarter. From there, however, the Lobos would outscore Artesia 7-1 to go back in front by four heading into the final eight minutes, 30-26.

Caldera kicked off the fourth with a hard drive to the basket to make it 30-28, and a Null bucket at the five-minute mark made it a one-point affair, 31-30. But that would be the ‘Dogs’ final basket of the game.

Artesia went 4-9 from the line in the final minutes of play, still managing to give themselves a chance as the contest fell under one minute. Down 36-34 with 19 seconds on the clock, however, the Bulldogs turned the ball over to prevent any hope of a comeback.

“We have to do a better job of getting mentally ready to play,” said Mondragon. “If we’re not going to be in basketball shape physically, we have to take care of business mentally.”

Null finished with nine points to lead the Bulldogs in scoring, followed by Caldera with seven.

The Artesia boys will take on El Paso Austin in a consolation semifinal at 8 p.m. today.

“Obviously, we didn’t shoot the ball as well as we’re capable of last night, so we want to shoot better tonight, but also just come out and play for each other – play with a little bit of pride, a little bit of fire,” Mondragon said. “Basketball shape is not going to happen in a week, but if we can just come out, play extremely hard, try to execute, and just get better, we’ll be fine.

“Like we told the guys, our goal is to play our best basketball come district, and this is just one step toward that. There are going to be bumps in the road, but we have to handle the adversity. It’s early, and there’s no need to hit the panic button. We have a lot of basketball left, and we just have to worry about improving every game.”