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(Courtesy Photo)

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Runnin’ ‘Dog basketball team will be hosting a Class 5A State Tournament first-round game Saturday at Bulldog Pit.

The message to Artesia is simple: Turn up.

Not since the 2008-09 season have the boys in orange earned a top-eight seed in the 16-team bracket, and the excitement is palpable to say the least among head coach Michael Mondragon, his staff, and his athletes.

“The accumulation of working hard and having a great season is getting to host a first-round game,” Mondragon said today. “Having that first-round game at home is huge. It’s one of the biggest advantages you can have in the state basketball tournament.”

The ‘Dogs (19-9) earned their No. 8 seed with a solid 13-6 regular season and a 5-3 showing in District 4-AAAAA play that included the narrowest of misses of both a D4 regular-season and tournament crown by way of close losses to top-ranked Roswell High.

On the horizon is a potential fifth shot at the Coyotes. Artesia would meet them in the quarterfinal round Wednesday at The Pit in Albuquerque should they defeat No. 9 Kirtland Central and Roswell take care of No. 16 Bloomfield Saturday.

But the Bulldogs are by no means looking past the Broncos, who bring a 17-10 record into Bulldog Pit.

Artesia and Kirtland had a few opponents in common over the course of the regular season. Both defeated Fort Wingate. The ‘Dogs bested Farmington 29-23 Dec. 28 at the Poe Corn in Roswell while Kirtland went 1-3 with the Scorpions over the course of regular-season and district play. Artesia also prevailed over Grants Feb. 7 in an add-in game, 51-47, while the Broncos lost to the Pirates 74-56 Dec. 12.

“They’re fast,” Mondragon said of KC. “They love to get up and down the floor. They’ve got a kid, Brock Dowdy, who’s very athletic. He’s averaging 18 a game, so we have to find a way to slow him down.

“They’re just a typical northern New Mexico basketball team. They love to get that pace going. But we have to make sure we worry about us and not worry too much about what they’re going to do. If we play great team defense and execute on both ends of the court, I like our chances.”

Suffocating D and patience on offense took the ‘Dogs into overtime against Roswell High in the title game of the D4 Tournament, and they’ll be looking to maintain that level of intensity Saturday.

“We had a great week of practice, and we’re looking forward to coming out tomorrow night and doing all the things we’ve done to get to this point – play great defense, make sure we take care of the ball, and execute.

“We need to let our offense start from the inside out, and we’ve been working all week on our execution in the half-court set. Like we told the boys, it’s the little things now. Just making sure you set screens at the right angle, box out the entire possession, make smart passes – if we do all of that, we’re going to be fine.”

Mondragon and his athletes are also hoping to see a large and raucous crowd turn out at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Pit to cheer the team on as they fight to earn a spot in next week’s quarterfinals.

“We can’t thank the community enough for getting behind us this year,” said Mondragon. “We’d love to have our best game of the year tomorrow with the best crowd we’ve had all year long.

“If you haven’t seen us play, here’s your chance. Let’s fill that gym up and go crazy for these guys. We’re looking forward to a fun, exciting game tomorrow night.”