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Head coach Michael Mondragon is loath to use it as an excuse, but the fact remains: Since the transition to basketball of the nine members of their 13-man roster who were part of the Bulldog football team’s state championship Dec. 2, the Artesia basketball team has had just six complete practice sessions amidst two games.

So while it’s not an excuse, it certainly plays a prominent role in two impressions coming out of the Runnin’ ‘Dogs long road trip north this weekend: Their win over Class 5A No. 10 Valencia Friday was an impressive one; and their lopsided loss to top-ranked Santa Fe Capital (10-1) was understandable.

“This was (Capital’s) 11th game,” Mondragon said Saturday following his team’s 70-41 defeat at the hands of the Jaguars. “They don’t have a lot of guys who play football, so they’re in midseason shape right now while we’re just getting going.

“But we’re playing hard, we’re competing hard, and we’re giving it all we’ve got out there. We’re just still in the process of trying to find ourselves right now.”

The boys in orange tumbled into an early hole Saturday afternoon against Capital, and that’s something a team simply can’t do against some of the hottest hands in the state. While most matchups are forgiving of a few first-quarter glitches, the Jags took full advantage of Artesia’s nine turnovers and misplaced shots, doubling up on the ‘Dogs going into the second, 16-8.

Artesia battled in the second, with Cody Smith logging an old-fashioned three-point play and both ends of a one-and-one, Clay Houghtaling and Taylor Null delivering offensive putbacks, and Luke Nelson driving into the lane for a finger-roll. But Capital was scoring in bunches in between – including their third and fourth three-pointers of the half – to keep the gap widening, and the Bulldogs headed into the locker room at the half down by 18, 39-21.

Artesia returned to the court refreshed and were able to match Capital nearly blow for blow in the third. That kept the sizable margin intact going into the fourth, however, and with the Jags capping off a nine-three-pointer game in that quarter, there was no way to make up ground in the 70-41 loss.

While the Jaguars were bound to rack up points regardless in their home gym, Artesia’s 22 turnovers on the afternoon didn’t help, giving Capital a number of easy buckets.

“We just didn’t do a good job of taking care of the ball,” Mondragon said. “You can’t defend turnovers. We do such a good job of guarding, but they had about 20 points on turnovers, and you can’t do that in that environment on the road against a good team like that.”

The Bulldogs were led in scoring by Joe Willingham with 12 and Null with 10, while Capital’s TJ Sanchez topped the list with 18.

“Capital is one of the best if not the best in our classification, and we could’ve been a lot closer to them if we fix a few things here and there,” said Mondragon. “This was our fourth game, and some of these issues are going to get ironed out. It just takes time. It’s a process, a journey, and like I tell these guys all the time, you have to buy into that process. You can’t get your heads down.

“We’ll watch the film, look at all the mistakes we made today, and get better from them. That’s why we have the schedule we have and why we play the best teams we can possibly play.”

Artesia got the weekend off to a solid start Friday with a 58-55 win over Valencia in Los Lunas, competing well and fending off a furious charge by the other Jaguars in the final moments.

Both squads struggled to find the hoop in the first quarter of play, but with help from a pair of buckets apiece by Willingham and Chaney Hardt, Artesia was able to head into the second up by one, 10-9.

The ‘Dogs shook off their road trip rust before the half, however, hanging 20 on Valencia in the second.

With Houghtaling storming the paint and Null contributing from both the field and the free-throw line, Artesia was able to maintain their slight lead through the midway point, 20-15. And with and-ones from Hardt and Anthony Armendariz, along with shots off the glass by Willingham and Houghtaling, the Bulldogs were able to bump their edge to double-digits by the half, 30-20.

After matching the Jags 9-9 in a low-scoring third, the ‘Dogs got early baskets from Hardt and Kale Mauritsen in the fourth and a trey from Hardt to take what turned out to be a crucial 15-point lead, 46-31. Valencia found their rhythm from the perimeter in the final minutes of the game and used four to barrel back into striking distance late, 54-52.

A clutch pair from the stripe by Houghtaling made it 56-52 with 13 seconds to go, however, and the Jaguars’ final trey of the period could only cut Artesia’s advantage to one, 56-55, at the five-second mark. They quickly fouled, but Mauritsen made them pay, coolly draining his freebies, as well, to round out the final, 58-55.

“Any time you get a win on the road, it’s a good thing,” said Mondragon. “5A is wide open this year. There are a lot of good teams, and on any given night, anybody can beat anybody.

“I thought we did a good job of handling the bus trip, getting out there, and finding a way to win the game.”

Houghtaling finished with 18 points for the Bulldogs, followed by Hardt with 14 and Willingham with 10.

“We still had too many turnovers and kind of fell apart a little bit in the fourth, but we’re still trying to find our identity,” Mondragon said. “That usually happens in practice, but with that quick turnaround from football, some of it is having to happen for us in games.

“Clay played extremely well for us Friday. He had a big game, and so did all of our guards. Chaney is doing real well, Joe, Taylor… we’re really going to have to learn heavy on these seniors, and they did a great job of helping us win that game.”

With the split, the Bulldogs move to 3-2 on the season as they prepare to return home Thursday for a 7 p.m. bout against Class 6A Hobbs (5-4).

The Eagles suffered a close loss to Capital in a high-scoring affair Dec. 9, 90-82, and have also split with Roswell High this year, 97-88 and overtime and 60-68.

To be successful, Mondragon says the ‘Dogs will have to start with one important fundamental – ball protection.

“Hobbs is going to press us, and we have got to find a way to take care of the ball,” said the coach. “We have to find some guys who are going to step up and handle that pressure, and we’ll work on that in practice this week – figuring out where we’re going, putting people in the right spots on our press breakers, and executing on offense.

“If we keep guarding the way we have been and quit turning it over, I think we’ll be fine. But we’ll have another three great days of practice before then. It’s just a grind. We have to keep better and keep improving to get where we need to be.”