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(Courtesy Photo)

There’s nothing like a district preview to kick off the season. And while the Runnin’ ‘Dogs’ shooting hands may have matched the weather a time or two this morning at Bulldog Pit, the boys in orange ultimately settled in for the 50-39 win over rival Goddard in the first round of the 2017 City of Champions Classic.

“Any time you can come out in the first game of the year, with us having been together as short a time as we have, and get a win, that’s a good thing,” Artesia head coach Michael Mondragon said following his squad’s opener. “Obviously, we’ve got a ton of things to get better at. It was pretty sloppy, but they’re all things we can fix, and we will fix them. It just takes time.

“We haven’t gotten a lot of practice as a full squad, so you’re going to see a lot of growing pains on the court right now, but the kids are being coachable, they’re playing hard, and they’re competing their tails off.”

It took the Bulldogs a bit to find their rhythm Saturday, with a pair from the free-throw line by Cody Smith sustaining them through the midway point of the first quarter. But following an offensive putback by Taylor Null, Artesia closed out the period with buckets from Smith and Kale Mauritsen, and a Clay Houghtaling trey in the final seconds to counter a pair of Rocket longballs and secure an 11-8 edge.

A hard drive to the hoop by Luke Nelson kicked off the second quarter. Goddard was able to stay within 10 points of Artesia throughout, but solid efforts from the stripe near the end of the half by Mauritsen and Smith helped the ‘Dogs create a bit of breathing room by the break, 28-19.

Both squads were hard-pressed to find the basket in the third. But a stifling defensive effort by Bulldog big men Null and Joe Willingham on the Rockets’ 6’5” and 6’4” threats Dalin Stanford and Derek Carrica kept Goddard’s offensive output low enough that a trio of buckets from Null, Willingham and Houghtaling were enough to keep Artesia out front, 34-25, going into the fourth.

There, the Bulldogs were able to build a solid lead in the first four-and-a-half minutes of play, with five points by Houghtaling and four from Smith helping bump the gap to 15, 47-32.

The Rockets were able to creep back within eight in the final moments, but a Mauritsen layup and one from the line by Nelson rounded out the final, 50-39.

“I told the guys after the game, I definitely think we can do a better job of finishing,” Mondragon said. “We turned the ball over in sports, but we did a good job of rebounding and played great defense for this early in the year.”

Cody Smith powers into the lane for a shot under pressure during this morning’s game against Goddard. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Houghtaling finished with 12 points to lead the ‘Dogs, followed by Mauritsen and Smith with 11 each, while Xavier Garcia had 12 for the Rockets. Artesia shot 37 percent from the field to Goddard’s 26 and was 62 percent from the line.

With the win, the ‘Dogs advance to the City of Champs semifinal round at 8 p.m. Friday, where they’ll take on the winner of this evening’s bout between Carlsbad and Gallup.

The Artesia boys are focused on defending their 2016 tournament championship, something that would provide a big boost for the program as they head into a challenging first half of the season.

“We’re the reigning City of Champions champions, and that’s something you don’t hear us say very often,” said Mondragon. “That’s something great we accomplished last year, and it’s one of the goals the guys have already set up. I think we’re capable of doing it; we’ve got a lot of talent out here.

“We’ve also got one of the toughest schedules in the state again this year, and it’s definitely a road-heavy schedule, so in the long-term we just want to make sure we’re getting better every day.”

The Bulldogs have 13 players on their varsity roster this season, including six seniors, six juniors, and one sophomores.

“We’ve got a good core group,” Mondragon said. “And the main thing with these guys is, man, they sure do play well together. They share the ball, they’re real cohesive, they’re not selfish, so we just need to keep building on that.”

Mondragon also says excitement on the team is high as they begin their season, bolstered by the arrival of a good portion of their roster this week from a state championship effort in football.

“It’s just fun to see those guys go out and win a state championship, and come in here with all that excitement and energy,” said the coach. “They’re ready to work hard and work toward hopefully winning another one in basketball.”

But first thing’s first, as the ‘Dogs will continue working this weekend to defend their tourney title before hitting the road until Dec. 21. That game, against Hobbs, will be their last in the Pit until January.

“This weekend, I just wat to see us take care of the basketball, rebound well, and be relaxed on offense and take what we’re given, shoot with confidence,” said Mondragon. “If we do those three things, we’ll be fine.

“We’d also love to see some great crowds out this weekend. I know it’s Christmastime and there’s a lot of things going on, but our team this year is going to be fun to watch, and we’re not going to be home a whole lot this season. So this is a great chance for the community to come out and get behind these guys, and we want to thank everybody who’s involved in making this tournament a success.”