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Gracie Tesillo sails past Lovington’s Iris Diaz as Elisa Cardenas (33) looks on during the first half Friday at the Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

It’s been two years since the Lady Bulldog basketball team logged a district win, but with a minute-and-a-half to go Friday at Bulldog Pit, they were close enough to taste it.

Down 39-33 and with time continuing to tick away, the Lady ‘Dogs battled with the physical Lady Wildcats of Lovington for two consecutive offensive boards that ultimately resulted in a foul beyond the arc on Kyrah Gonzales.

With 37 seconds on the clock and the ‘Cat fans howling, the sophomore coolly delivered all three shots to make it a one-possession game, 39-36.

Artesia had no choice but to foul, but they picked the wrong jersey to grab in Lovington’s Japeria Wright, who’d missed just two of her nine attempts to that point in the second half. Wright converted both to make it a five-point game, but the girls in orange weren’t finished with their own clutch performance from the stripe.

Gracie Puentes was fouled in the paint and posted two, then relieved the ‘Cats of the ball on the inbound pass and fired it out to Gonzales, who, with 20 seconds remaining, drained a trey to tie the game at 41-all.

Lovington frantically inbounded the ball and sent Rylee Mapes barreling into the paint, where she appeared to charge Paityn Houghtaling. Instead, Houghtaling was levied her fourth foul of the night, and Mapes made good on one of two free throws.

That gave Artesia a chance to win it on a field goal, but the Lady ‘Dogs would commit their 15th turnover of the second half at the worst possible moment, forcing Houghtaling – who suffered mightily on the contest for being tall and apparently looking menacing – to foul out of the game to stop the clock.

Azaria Stewart took her turn going 1-1 from the charity stripe to make it a two-point game, 43-41, and leave the door still open for either a win or a tie. But the Lady Bulldogs couldn’t get a handle on the rebound, letting the ball roll across mid-court, where it was scooped up by the ‘Cats.

And this time, Mapes converted both freebies with three seconds remaining to set the final, 45-41.

“I thought we did a good job of fighting all night,” head coach Jeff Houghtaling said Saturday. “We never let them get away from us. I think four or five points was the biggest lead they had at any time, so we were able to keep it close.

“We hit some shots when we needed to and got some free throws at the end there to keep us in it, and of course, a big three-pointer in the last little bit to tie it. But we were just a few turnovers here and there away from probably winning the game.”

Artesia committed 21 turnovers on the night, the majority of those in the final quarters, and struggled from the field in the first and third quarters, hitting just a pair of buckets in each.

But the four-point loss to an opponent that had topped them by nearly 20 just two weeks ago was a solid turnaround for the girls in orange and should serve as a confidence-booster as they move forward.

“We had a good talk after the game about how well we played and how we can compete with these district teams,” Houghtaling said. “I think we could beat all of them, we just have to put a really good, four-quarter game together.

“But I think the girls are real positive. They’re still excited about playing, and they’re looking forward to continuing in district.”

The Lady Bulldogs’ shooting woes in the opening eight minutes Friday prevented them from getting what could have been an important leg up on the Wildcats.

On top 1-0, courtesy of a Puentes free throw to start the game, the Artesia girls missed seven attempts from the field before Lovington finally got on the board at the 4:22 mark on a shot off the glass by Stewart. Stewart would go on to reel off four more in quick succession on turnovers to help put the ‘Cats up 9-5 heading into the second.

An Alexa Riggs jumper to start the period and five quick points from Gonzales brought Artesia back within a point, 13-12, midway through, however, and Artesia would take a 19-17 lead at the 1:30 mark on treys by Gracie Tesillo and Brehnan Davis. Lovington was able to inch back in front at the break, though, 21-19, on baskets by Mapes and Addy Jeter.

Another Tesillo longball and two from the line by Puentes returned the advantage to the Lady Bulldogs as the third quarter commenced, and a free-throw-line jumper from Tesillo kept Artesia up with just over three-and-a-half minutes to go in the quarter, 26-23.

But the Wildcats would end the period on an 8-1 run to take what turned out to be a vital four-point lead, 31-27, going into the fourth.

“I feel like if we could have hit a few more shots in the first quarter and got our confidence going, it might have made a difference in the game,” Coach Houghtaling said. “We were just really cold in the first.

“We also put Lovington on the line a lot, and they were really good from the free-throw line last night. I don’t think they’ve been that consistent all season, so we have to hand it to them – they made some big free throws when they needed to.”

Tesillo tied Stewart for top scoring honors on the night with 15, followed by Gonzales with 11 and Puentes with seven. Artesia shot 23 percent overall from the field Friday to Lovington’s 30 and were 12 of 16 from the stripe to the ‘Cats’ 17 of 31.

“The girls really fought hard,” said Houghtaling. “We were able to get 10 kids in the game, and they all did a good job of contributing. It was good to see us fight back and battle like that, I just wish we could catch a break and pull out a win.

“But at the same time, that’s kind of the reason I really love coaching games like that – to see the kids do the stuff they did, to compete, play hard, and really put their heart into it… I was just really proud of them.”

The Lady Bulldogs (13-10, 0-4) will now head to Roswell Tuesday looking for another very different outcome against the Lady Coyotes, who topped Artesia 77-44 Jan. 31 at the Pit.

The top-ranked Coyotes were upset by No. 4 Goddard Friday in a low-scoring bout, 39-36.

“I thought we had a pretty decent game plan against them the last time,” Houghtaling said. “I know they kind of kicked our tails, but we’re going to try to do the best we can to keep them under wraps Tuesday.

“Our game plan before was to try to keep them in a half-court and not let them get away from us too much in transition. We weren’t really able to do that, but we’re going to try to contain them as best we can and hope we shoot well. They’re the best team in our class, but like Goddard proved, the best teams are still beatable.”

Houghtaling also expressed thanks to the large crowd of Artesia fans who turned out Friday for an evening of basketball, burgers, and not winning a pickup – the victor in the Basketball Boosters’ Ford F-150 raffle was Gary West, not in attendance.

“We’re thankful to all the folks who bought tickets for the pickup, and congratulations to the winner,” said Houghtaling. “The turnout at our last couple of home games has been fantastic. The crowd support was huge last night, and it was just very exciting, especially when we hit that big three in the last seconds – I haven’t heard a crowd that loud in the Pit in a long time.

“Our girls’ camp also went really well today. We had about 180 girls in it, so we’d like to send thanks to all the little girls who participated in the one-day clinic. It was a good weekend for basketball; I just wish we’d gotten the win.”