Published: 2:22 pm, Sun. Jan. 17th, 2016Updated: 2:20 pm
Following a seventh-place finish at the Gallup Invitational and a tough loss to county rival Carlsbad Tuesday at home, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs were focused on turning things around on their final weekend road trip north.
The Artesia boys picked up a pair of big Class 5A wins Friday and Saturday, besting Los Alamos 57-53 and Moriarty 56-48 to even their record with just three games remaining on their predistrict slate.
The ‘Dogs got their winning weekend started Friday against a solid Hilltopper team.
On top by three at the half, 33-30, Artesia struggled from the field in the third, and Los Alamos took full advantage. The boys in green outshot the Bulldogs 5-1 in the quarter, but the ‘Dogs’ much-improved output from the free-throw line helped keep them from falling behind. Justin Houghtaling went 5-6 from the stripe to add to a jumper by Taylor Null that made it even heading into the fourth, 40-40.
Caleb Brewer got a quick shot off the glass, and the squads traded the lead four times early, with buckets by Ethan Duff and Carlos Caldera turning the tables for the Bulldogs. Caldera wasn’t done there, racking up six more points to give the ‘Dogs a five-point lead, 52-47, with 1:30 to go.
Both ends of a one-and-one by Duff expanded the gap, but the ‘Toppers constricted the ‘Dogs’ breathing room with 21 seconds remaining on a three by Kirk Peterson and a pair from the line by Jack Stewart that made it 54-53.
Duff hit one free throw to make it a two-point game, but Los Alamos’ off-balance attempt at a trey bounced long and Caldera was there for the rebound. The senior was promptly fouled but hit both shots to put the game out of reach, 57-53.
“I thought we did a great job of battling for four quarters,” Artesia head coach Michael Mondragon said. “Los Alamos is a very talented team, a very big team, but we never let it get out of control and then did a great job of finishing the game, playing some good defense and making some really clutch free throws down the stretch.”
Saturday, it was off to Moriarty, where the game against the Pintos got off to a similar start.
Up 11-10 after one, having overcome a slow start with help from five points from Carlos Carrasco and four Tim Morrison free throws, the ‘Dogs put some space between themselves and Moriarty with a continued coup at the stripe. Carlos Caldera went 4-4, Morrison 2-2, and Null 1-2 to buffer a Carrasco layup and give Artesia a 20-12 edge.
The Pintos would outscore the Bulldogs 11-2 in the final minutes of the half, however, to take a 23-22 lead.
Down 28-24 in the third, a Caldera layup and six points from Houghtaling – including a trey put Artesia back on top, and after reclaiming the lead for a second time in the period, free throws – coupled with an offensive putback by Joe Willingham – would again save the day, as the ‘Dogs led 40-36 heading into the final eight minutes.
Caldera posted back-to-back buckets to kick off the fourth, Null went 3-4 from the line, and Duff and Houghtaling delivered layups to give Artesia a 10-point cushion, 51-41.
Moriarty came roaring back, cutting the ‘Dogs’ edge to three with two minutes left to play, 51-48. But a hard drive to the hoop by Caldera plus a free throw, and two from the line by Duff, saw Artesia through the final minutes.
Caldera tied for top-scoring honors on the game with 15, followed by Houghtaling with 12. The Bulldogs were 69 percent from the line on the game.
“I thought the boys did a great job of just executing our game plan tonight,” said Mondragon. “We did a great job on defense, we pressed when we needed to press, and we did a really good job of putting pressure on the rim, getting to the line, and making our free throws.
“We kept our composure down the stretch, didn’t turn the ball over, and did a good job of making them chase us.”
The Bulldogs will join the Artesia girls in a trip to Carlsbad Friday before returning home to close out the regular season against Hobbs Saturday.
“We just have to keep getting better from here,” Mondragon said. “That’s been our theme all year long. We can’t worry about the scoreboard. We just have to keep working, keep practicing, and keep coming in with the mindset that we have to improve every day.
“This weekend was a big step for us as a program. Everybody put in some good minutes, and everybody on our team helped us get a couple of clutch 5A wins. Hopefully, we can get another one Monday, and if we can, I really like where we’re at going into Carlsbad and Hobbs.”