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Up by 13 points going into the final quarter of play, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs were looking good and in control of their District 4-AAAAA opener on the road against Lovington.

An old-fashioned three-point play by Joe Willingham to kick off the fourth made that advantage 16 and had the healthy contingent of Artesia fans who made the trek east on their feet.

But a quick six points from Lovington would soon have the volume rising from the other half of the gym, as well, and what followed was a rollercoaster ride to the finish line that saw the ‘Dogs break the tape just ahead of the Wildcats, 53-49.

Those six unanswered slashed the ‘Cats’ deficit to 10, 46-36, with just under five minutes to go in the game, and following a shot off the glass by Taylor Null, six more Lovington points brought the boys in blue even closer, 48-42.

Caleb Dean came through with a hard drive to the hoop with around three minutes to go in the contest, but from there, the ‘Cats began to foul in order to stop the clock. And the Bulldogs did not take advantage of the freebies.

Artesia went 0-5 from the charity stripe as the game fell under 40 seconds, and while they were struggling, the Wildcats were making just enough of their foul shots to bring themselves within four, 50-46.

Bryce McAlister finally ended the drought with both ends of a double bonus to give the ‘Dogs back some breathing room, but a Gage Sandoval trey at the 12-second mark made it a one-shot affair, 52-49.

McAlister was able to take that option off the table, however, with a free throw at the 11-second mark, and as Lovington missed their final attempts from the field, the Bulldogs escaped with their first district win.

The Wildcats had come out strong, as well, on their home court, coming back from a McAlister-fueled 6-0 deficit to post the final 12 points of the quarter as turnovers and missed shots stymied Artesia’s offense.

But the ‘Dogs regrouped in the second, kicking off that period with a bucket each from Chaney Hardt and Willingham and a McAlister trey to go up 13-12. A Hardt longball and two drives to the bucket by Dean – one culminating in an and-one – helped keep Artesia in front, and although the ‘Cats outscored the Bulldogs 5-2 in the final moments of the half, the boys in orange held onto the edge at intermission, 23-20.

McAlister and Sandoval traded three’s to open the third period, but McAlister got the last word from beyond the arc with a second to make it 31-23 Artesia, and after a short run by the ‘Cats, Willingham and McAlister would cap off the quarter with six and four points respectively to give the ‘Dogs what turned out to be a crucial cushion going into the fourth, 43-30.

McAlister’s 26 on the night led all scorers, followed by Willingham with 11 and Dean with nine. Allijah Ballard finished with 14 for Lovington.

The Bulldogs (14-6, 1-0) will now prepare to host Roswell High and Goddard next week at Bulldog Pit before their Feb. 10 rematch with Lovington.