. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Taylor Null lofts a jumper high over the outstretched hand of Colby Vancleve during the second quarter Friday at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

In their District 4-AAAAA opener Jan. 27 in Lovington, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs had to rely on solid offensive performances in the second and third quarters to stave off a 19-point charge by the Wildcats in the final eight minutes and preserve a four-point win, 53-49.

Friday at Bulldog Pit, the boys in orange weren’t in the mood for that kind of drama.

Utilizing a devastating combination of aggressive defense, acrobatic rebounding, and patient offense, the ‘Dogs turned a nine-point halftime lead into a runaway in the second half, outscoring the ‘Cats 25-15 in the final quarters en route to a 53-33 final.

The boys in orange committed just 11 turnovers on the bout and eight fouls in a performance that was crisp, clean, and a welcome sight for head coach Michael Mondragon.

“Overall, I think that’s probably the best game we’ve played all year long as far as executing, taking care of the ball, and understanding the game plan,” Mondragon said Saturday. “Like we said last week, any time you can win a district game by 20, that’s a good night, and this was a great team win and a great overall effort from our guys.”

Caleb Dean got the ball rolling in style Friday on an alley-oop from Taylor Null, and a nine-point run midway through the first that included layups from Devon Torres and Bryce McAlister, a Dean baseline jumper, and a Torres trey gave Artesia a commanding lead, 11-2, with just over two minutes left in the quarter.

Lovington was able to pull back within five, 11-6, with four unanswered to end the period, but while the Wildcats delivered their most successful offense showing of the night in the second, the ‘Dogs selected the quality shots that would keep some distance between them.

A breakaway layup off the steal by Dean was followed by a Chaney Hardt three and a midair offensive putback from Alan Cosio to make it 18-8. Joe Willingham muscled past his tormentor for the evening, Colby Vancleve, in the paint, then joined Null in logging pull-up jumpers, and Dean capped the whole thing off with a last-second, NBA-range three to make it 27-18 at the break.

“We withstood some runs in the first half,” said Mondragon. “They were able to catch back up at times, but we did a great job of taking what they gave us. Like I told the boys in the locker room, we’re starting to come together. We’re really starting to see all these pieces we’ve been working on coming together, and now we just have to hone that and keep getting better.”

The Wildcats briefly pulled back within five, 27-22, to start the third on baskets by Isaiah Hinson and Arturo Carrasco, but Torres struck again from beyond the arc, Willingham delivered two from the stripe, and Dean drove to the hoop to quickly make it a 12-point affair, 34-22. Cosio completed an old-fashioned three-point play to end the quarter with the same margin.

The ‘Dogs then effectively closed the book with a whirlwind four minutes to start the fourth that included a Willingham and-one, Torres’ third trey of the night, and two from the stripe by Null.

Two more free throws from McAlister made it 48-27 with 3:21 remaining, and the boys in orange were able to coast from there.

“I think one of the biggest things right now is we’re sharing the ball and being efficient on offense – making the right passes, not getting impatient, and attacking at the right times,” said Mondragon. “We’ve really been working on that, and last night, I think we started figuring it out.

“We’re seeing the guys understand that sometimes you only need good shots, not great shots, or just one extra pass, one extra screen. They’re really starting to trust each other, and that’s big. People sometimes forget we don’t have our football guys until December, so it takes time first to get them into basketball shape and then to start developing that team chemistry. It’s also been a crazy year as far as handling adversity, whether it was injuries or guys being out for other stuff, and we’ve withstood that really well.”

Dean led all scorers Friday with 13 points, followed by Torres with 11 and Willingham with nine. Carrasco posted seven for the ‘Cats. Artesia out-shot Lovington 45 percent to 32 from the field in the contest.

The ‘Dogs (16-7, 3-1) are now looking forward to their third shot of the regular season at Class 5A top-ranked Roswell High, who’ve topped Artesia by just a combined 12 points in the teams’ previous meetings.

Jan. 31 at the Pit, the boys in orange led the Coyotes through three complete quarters before falling in the fourth, 50-45.

“We’ve definitely been looking forward to playing them again,” said Mondragon. “The guys know it’s going to be a tough task, especially in their gym, but we’re playing our best basketball right now, and that’s what we need.

“The biggest thing any time you play Roswell, of course, is you have to handle their pressure and make sure you take care of the ball, don’t give them easy buckets off turnovers. Chris Mesquita hurt us last time we played them, so we have to make sure we slow him down. But the biggest thing for us is to just keep working on us. I don’t care what the other teams do – it boils down to how we handle the ball and how we execute. So we want to play great team defense, rebound, and give ourselves an opportunity in the fourth quarter to come out with a win.”

Mondragon also thanked Friday’s sizable Bulldog Pit crowd and says the ‘Dogs hope to see most if not all of those fans Tuesday in Roswell to cheer them on against the Coyotes.

“We want to thank everybody from Artesia who supported our tailgate and the truck raffle,” said the coach. “It was a huge success, and any time you can do that and have a great crowd like we did Friday, it just shows you how blessed we are to be in a great community like Artesia that really supports its athletic programs and anything to do with the schools.

“I want to thank the Sixth-Man Club and our booster club for all their hard work and everyone in the community who bought tickets. It’s always exciting to be able to give that vehicle away to somebody local. Now hopefully we’ll have a great crowd in Roswell Tuesday, because we’re going to need that support. I hope everybody comes out for Valentine’s Day and supports these guys.”