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“It was a tale of two halves,” Bulldog head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday night.

That description couldn’t have been more accurate.

In the championship game of the 2017 Bengal Invitational in Gallup, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs battled in the opening quarters to build a halftime lead over the host Bengals, 31-27. They increased their advantage to start the third, but from there, their offense simply disappeared.

Artesia’s two second-half-opening buckets would prove their only points of the third quarter, as Gallup smelt blood in the water and began to inch away. And the Bengals’ newly boosted confidence, spurred on by a frenzied home crowd, proved too much to overcome in the fourth, as Gallup outscored the ‘Dogs 17-10 en route to a 61-45 win.

“I couldn’t be prouder of my guys for going out and competing great in the first half,” Mondragon said. “We had a solid game plan and we really executed it well. We came out for the second half and started the third quarter really well, also. But then the wheels just fell off.

“We started making mistakes uncharacteristic of us – turning the ball over, missing a lot of easy shots – and they were just able to get the momentum. And any time you’re playing a team on their home court with their crowd, things like that fluster you a little bit, and we just got rattled.”

Saturday’s outcome was noticeably different from the 63-40 win the Bulldogs posted over Gallup in the semifinal round of the City of Champions Classic Dec. 9, a testament to the power of home-court advantage.

Once the Bengals took the lead midway through the third, 36-35, the volume never diminished inside their gym. They rode that wave to a 49-35 lead in the fourth before Artesia could pick up its first point since the early goings of the third, a Taylor Null free throw with 5:26 remaining in the game.

Null posted the ‘Dogs’ first field goal since the third with 2:30 on the clock to make it 51-38, but there was no coming back from there.

It was a frustrating end made more frustrating by Artesia’s solid start.

On six points from Alan Cosio and a Devon Torres trey, the Bulldogs had bounded out to a 9-4 lead in the first quarter and would hold a three-point edge over the Bengals going into the second, 15-12.

Chaney Hardt kicked off that quarter with a longball before nine answered by Gallup turned the tables, 23-20. A Torres three and two from beyond the arc by Bryce McAlister, however, propelled the ‘Dogs back in front, where they would stay at intermission, 31-27.

Null led the squad with 11 points, followed by Cosio with 10, and McAlister and Torres with six apiece. Troy Etsitty finished with 19 for the Bengals.

“Like we told the guys, this is the reason we come up here,” Mondragon said. “We’re not going to stay home, stay within 60 miles and play teams that aren’t going to make us better. We’re going to put ourselves in environments that get us where we need to be, which is playing for a district championship and a state championship.

“We’re frustrated with the outcome, but that game made us better.”

The Bulldogs will have three more chances this week to continue their rapid improvement against Class 5A competition as they travel to Chaparral Tuesday for a 5:30 p.m. bout before returning to Bulldog Pit for the first time since Dec. 20 to take on Los Alamos at 7 p.m. Friday and Del Norte at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“The biggest thing right now is we’ve got to take care of the ball,” Mondragon said. “We have to understand that the ball is a piece of gold, and when we have it in our possession, we have to make sure we make the most of it. We’re squandering some opportunities right now. Tonight was a prime example – bad decision, bad decision, and before you know it, you’re down by 20.

“January is a tough month for us just because we’re playing three or four games a week, and we don’t have a whole lot of time to practice in between. But that makes us have to get mentally better as well as physically better. Just like we talk about every year, we still have those football guys who are finally starting to pick up the pace, we’ve got guys who’ve been injured getting back into the mix, and we just have to keep working.”

The Bulldogs defeated Chaparral 78-43 in their season opener Dec. 8 at the City of Champions Classic and will be looking to see continued self-improvement in their eighth consecutive road game.

“I’m just really proud of our guys and excited for our future,” Mondragon said. “People sometimes forget we haven’t been together as long as a lot of these teams. We’re still playing catch-up, but our guys are working their tails off, playing hard, playing together, and doing everything we’re asking.

“We’ve been in three tournaments this year and have been in the championship game of every one of them, so there’s a lot of firsts for this team. Obviously, we’d have rather won them all, but all of this is making us the team we want to be, and we just have to keep getting better and doing the work.”