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It’s been several years since the Bulldog basketball team could say it was in the driver’s seat against District 4-AAAAA rival Roswell High. But through one half of play Friday in the championship game of the Poe Corn Invitational, that’s precisely where the boys in orange were sitting.

After taking the lead late in the first quarter, the ‘Dogs expanded it to nine points at the break, 32-23. But unfortunately, Artesia would manage just four points in the third period, and the result of that – along with 16 free throws shot by the Coyotes in the half to the Bulldogs’ four – was a seven-point loss, 53-46.

It was a frustrating end to an excellent tournament run for Artesia, who bested Class 5A fourth-ranked Farmington in Wednesday’s opening round and defeated Goddard in the semifinals. But the slip-up didn’t overshadow a quality effort by the Runnin’ ‘Dogs in their first-ever Poe Corn championship game appearance in the tournament’s 69-year history and the Bulldogs’ 12 trips to it.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said. “Getting a big win against Farmington, coming back with another big win against Goddard. What I liked most is that I really felt like every day this week during the tournament, we’ve gotten better. I know we didn’t end up on the right end of the win column in this game tonight, but for about two-and-a-half to three quarters, we played right there with them if not beat them.

“(Roswell) is a really good team. They’ve been a very good team for a very long time, and you just can’t make simple mistakes against a team like that. You can’t compound a bad decision with another bad decision, because then it snowballs, and that’s what cost us tonight.”

Taylor Null got the ‘Dogs off to a quick start in the title tilt with an offensive putback and a free throw, but Roswell High was able to move in front by four, 9-5, late in the quarter. A 7-0 run that included a Devon Torres three-pointer and buckets by Caleb Dean and Alan Cosio, however, capped off the period and saw Artesia into the second with a 12-9 edge.

Treys from Torres and Tyler Greenwood kept the Bulldogs in front to start the second, and Artesia kept the pressure on the Coyotes from there.

Torres’ third longball of the game was answered by Garret Smothermon with under three minutes to go in the half to keep Roswell within five, but both ends of a one-and-one by Null and shots off the glass from Dean and Joe Willingham gave Artesia a nine-point cushion, 32-23, at the break.

But to compound the fact the ‘Dogs began to be peppered with whistles as the second half commenced, Artesia committed six turnovers in the third quarter that severely limited their offensive looks. Late buckets by Willingham and Dean were all Artesia could manage in the period, while the Coyotes took full advantage of the situation, reeling off 19 of their own to take a 42-36 lead going into the fourth.

An Alan Cosio jumper and four points from Greenwood made it a four-point game with around two minutes to go, and Dean’s fourth point of the quarter with 37 seconds on the clock gave the ‘Dogs a chance, 49-46. But Roswell continued to convert on their multitude of trips to the line, holding on for the 53-46 win.

“We really came out flat in that third quarter,” Mondragon said. “A team like Roswell is not going to go away. We got real stagnant offensively. They came out in a kind of hybrid three-two zone that kind of hurt us, but we just need to learn to be more patient on offense against things like that.”

Dean finished with 10 points for the ‘Dogs, followed by Torres with nine, Willingham with eight, and Greenwood with seven. Tarren Burrola led the Coyotes with 22. Roswell High shot 29 free throws on the contest, converting 18, to the ‘Dogs’ 9-14.

“The promising thing is that we know we’re going to see them at least two more times,” said Mondragon. “We’re a good team, they’re a good team. We’re both sitting in the top 10 in the state in our class, and it’s going to be a battle. Like we told the guys, we just have to use this as motivation to get better. We have to focus on us. We can’t worry about the things we can’t control, like the refs and getting bad calls here and there. We have to focus on the things we can fix.”

Mondragon said he was pleased with the ‘Dogs’ (7-3) overall performance on the week, particularly the signs the team is beginning to gel.

“We didn’t come out with a championship today, but we’re getting better and getting to where we’ll need to be come district and state,” said the coach. “I think the biggest thing for us is just learning how to play together, learning the plays, learning the system, getting our legs underneath us, and trusting each other. And we’re starting to do that.

“They’re not thinking as much out there; they’re playing and reacting. We just have to keep getting better every day, get better every practice. Like we tell the guys, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to take time. So we’re going to watch some film on Monday, look at the things we did right and the things we have to get better at, and hopefully we’ll be able to adjust and fix those things, and be ready next week to go up to Gallup.”

The Bulldogs will open the Jan. 5-7 Bengal Invitational at 6 p.m. Jan. 5 against Fort Wingate.

“We can’t be thankful enough to be from the town we’re from,” said Mondragon. “We had a great crowd for a 3 o’clock game on a Friday afternoon, and we’re real appreciative of all the support the community is giving us and the way they continue to rally behind these guys. We’re going to be on the road a little longer, but it’d be really great to have a nice crowd there when we get back home to continue to support these boys.

“We’re doing a lot of things we haven’t done before or haven’t done in a long time. The guys are setting goals out in front of them and accomplishing a lot of them, and they’re doing a good job of just taking it day by day, step by step. If we keep doing that, we’ll get where we need to go.”