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Carlos Caldera puts up a jumper during the second quarter Saturday against Goddard at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Carlos Caldera puts up a jumper during the second quarter Saturday against Goddard at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Following a first half that consisted of a combined score of 21, it was clear no points for pretty were going to be awarded between Artesia and Goddard in the fifth-place game of the City of Champions Classic Saturday at Bulldog Pit.

But that wasn’t important. What mattered in the second half was who wanted it more. And that turned out to be the boys in orange.

The Runnin’ ‘Dogs picked up the pace and stepped up their game in the final quarters of play to come away with a 33-28 victory in an early sneak preview of District 4-AAAAA. Artesia came through in the clutch in the fourth, sinking the baskets necessary to move in front, then getting the job done from the free-throw line to preserve the win.

“I love the effort,” head coach Michael Mondragon said. “Right now, our guys are playing extremely hard. This is some of the best defense we’ve had this early. To hold a team to 28 points gives you an opportunity to win, especially in a situation where you’re real rusty, you don’t have a whole lot of touch, a whole lot of finish.

“We took some big charges tonight, we made some shots when we needed to, and the biggest thing for us right now is that effort. With effort like that, we’re going to get better.

“And the greatest thing of all for us is that we have practice on Monday.”

The ‘Dogs headed into the weekend’s festivities with just a single afternoon of practice as a complete squad to go

Justin Houghtaling takes it to the hoop Friday against El Paso Austin. (Brienne Green - Daily Press)

Justin Houghtaling takes it to the hoop Friday against El Paso Austin. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

on. The lack of prep time showed in an opening-round loss to Chaparral, but Artesia bounced back with a pair of solid wins to improve to 3-1 on the year and take the consolation title in their home tourney.

Goddard got the ball rolling Saturday with an opening trey by LeAnthony Harrison, and a shot off the glass by Dalin Stanford made it 5-0. The ‘Dogs wouldn’t log their first field goal till the halfway point, but Carlos Caldera made it count from beyond the arc, and despite posting only a single basket in the first quarter, Artesia trailed by just four, 7-3, going into the second.

There, the offensive drought would continue for both teams.

The Rockets got a second trey from Blake Maxey to move in front 11-3 with 5:15 remaining in the half, but an offensive putback by Justin Houghtaling at the four-minute mark and a Tim Morrison longball with eight seconds to go continued to keep Artesia within striking distance, 13-8, at the break.

The ‘Dogs were finally able to find a rhythm in the third, shooting five of six from the field.

A bucket in the paint by Taylor Null and a rare four-point play by Bruce Bates gave Artesia its first lead of the night two minutes into the third, 14-13, and a Houghtaling bucket and trey from Morrison made it 19-17 with two-and-a-half minutes on the clock.

A Drew Lucero three and a layup by Maxey, however, helped the Rockets pull back in front by one going into the fourth, 22-21.

Caldera opened the final eight with a three-point play to put the Bulldogs back in the driver’s seat, and after Goddard turned the tables one final time, Caldera drained a clutch trifecta to make it 27-26 Artesia at the 4:29 mark.

Houghtaling would go 3-4 from the stripe to bump that lead to four, 30-26, with 1:35 remaining. Harrison managed a bucket to make it a one-shot game, but Houghtaling took a charge to stymie one Rocket possession and a turnover ended another as the game fell under 10 seconds.

Houghtaling continued his big fourth quarter with both ends of a one-and-one with eight seconds to go, and one of two from the line by Null with one second on the clock sealed the deal, 33-28.

“Resilience,” Mondragon said in summing up the weekend. “Resilience and handling adversity. Those two things our boys did a great job of after starting the tournament with a little bit of a letdown. To come back and get a big win last night against El Paso and to just grind out a game like tonight, to compete, finish, and find a way to win – that’s huge. That’s a great, great step in the right direction for our program.”

Houghtaling and Caldera finished with nine points each on the night to lead all scorers, while Maxey, Harrison and Cal Villareal all had seven for the Rockets.

The Bulldogs will now have a welcome week of practice before hitting the road for the first time this year Dec. 18 and 19 for bouts against Valencia and Santa Fe Capital.

“We’ve got two big challenges coming up next weekend, and we still have a lot of work to do,” Mondragon said. “But this was a great first weekend as a program, and we’re anxious and excited to get into the rest of the season.”

Mondragon also expressed appreciation to the fans and the community for supporting the ‘Dogs and the City of Champions Classic.

“We just want to thank all the community members and businesses, and everybody who came out and helped to make our 18th annual a success,” said the coach. “We hope to see everybody at our next home game. We’d love to fill this gym. These boys are fun to watch, and we definitely encourage the community to continue to support the basketball program.”

Consolation Semifinal

Artesia …………………56
EP Austin ……………..46

The Bulldogs overcame a shaky tournament opener against Chaparral Friday evening at Bulldog Pit with a 56-46 win over El Paso Austin in the consolation semifinals.

The ‘Dogs got off to a quick start in the contest, taking a 9-3 lead on a pair of free throws apiece by Bruce Bates and Taylor Null and a Justin Houghtaling three-pointer. The Golden Panthers were able to pull ahead 12-9 with just over a minute to go in the first, but a Carlos Carrasco trey and four points in the paint by Null put Artesia back in front going into the second, 16-12.

Eight unanswered by Austin reversed that margin, and as the Bulldogs’ shooting hands cooled, the Panthers began to pull away.

Down 29-20 at the midway point, a solid shot off the glass by Santiago Morillon and a Tanner Harris free throw cut the deficit to six, but Artesia would find themselves down by nine at the half, 32-23.

The ‘Dogs came out firing in the final quarters, however, with Null putting a quick one off the glass and Caldera delivering three straight layups to quickly bring Artesia back within three.

Two from the stripe by Houghtaling made it a one-point game, and Null continued to dominate in the paint, posting four buckets in the final two-and-a-half minutes of the third to help put the Runnin’ ‘Dogs in front going into the fourth, 41-39.

Baskets by Carrasco and Bates and two from Houghtaling saw Artesia bump its lead to nine with three minutes to go in the game as solid defense continued to hold the Panthers at bay. Null then capped off his high-point night with two more buckets to round out the 56-46 final.

Null finished with 19 to lead all scorers, followed by Houghtaling with 11.