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Elisa Cardenas fires up a shot from the perimeter Friday during the Lady Bulldogs’ game against Capital at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Their season just four games old, the Lady Bulldog basketball team would have been forgiven had they not made a statement on their first Class 5A weekend of the year.

But they did.

The girls in orange welcomed Santa Fe Capital and Los Alamos into Bulldog Pit Friday and Saturday, securing a pair of wins – 60-54 over the Jaguars, 59-44 over the Hilltoppers – that showcased different aspects of Artesia’s capabilities.

Friday versus Capital, the Lady ‘Dogs were solid from the field, shooting 47 percent on the night and dominating the paint. But they didn’t fare as well from the free-throw line, and a bit of a letdown in the fourth quarter allowed the Lady Jags to keep it close.

Against Los Alamos Saturday, Artesia was better from the stripe (15-21) and the perimeter, kept their fouls to a minimum, and limited their turnovers down the stretch.

“I think it’s our experience, our senior leadership,” head coach Jeff Houghtaling said Saturday. “It’s coming to them slowly, but game by game, I see us making strides in the right direction, and both the game last night and the game today were opportunities for end-of-game situations – time to hold the ball, time to be smart, when to shoot, when not to shoot.

“Even from last night to today I thought we made a lot better decisions. This game today could have gone exactly the same as the one did last night, they could’ve made a run, but we didn’t let them, and we were able to hang onto the ball a little better.”

The Lady Bulldogs and Hilltoppers turned the first quarter of Saturday afternoon’s bout at the Pit into a three-point fest.

After Los Alamos’ Jenee Montoya opened the game with one, Alexa Riggs and Kyrah Gonzales were quick to answer in succession. Gonzales would add two more and Riggs one before period’s end to sandwich a Hilltopper longball from Jenna Harris, and apart from a drive to the hoop by Kali Crandall, that comprised Artesia’s scoring in the 18-10 period.

Los Alamos, meanwhile, would keep their barrage going from beyond the arc in the early minutes of the second, firing off three to take a 21-20 lead. One off the glass by Paityn Houghtaling and a trio of Gracie Puentes free throws put Artesia back up, 25-24, but only briefly, as a 4-1 ‘Topper run to end the half saw Los Alamos leading at intermission, 30-26.

In the locker room, Coach Houghtaling urged his athletes to calm down and regroup.

“We talked about focusing,” he said. “We gave them extra possessions in the first half, we turned it over and they got some run-outs… I know they hit some three’s, but everybody’s going to hit some three’s. It was those fast-break baskets that killed us in the second quarter, so we told the girls to focus on the offensive end as far as taking care of the ball but also limit their possessions.

“And man, the second half was like night and day. I was really proud of the girls for that.”

In stark contrast to the 20 points the Hilltoppers put up in the second, Artesia would hold them to just seven apiece in the final quarters of play, stepping up their defense and full-court pressure to force 15 turnovers and turn their halftime deficit into a comfortable win.

Four points from the stripe by Puentes to start the third put the Lady ‘Dogs back out in front, and two buckets in the paint by Houghtaling kept them there in the waning moments of the quarter, 38-35.

It was clear Artesia was becoming more comfortable offensively, taking their time to organize plays like a perfectly-executed pick and roll late in the period between Puentes and Stacia Martinez.

Up 42-37 going into the fourth, the Lady Bulldogs wasted few shots in the final eight minutes, with buckets by Houghtaling and Martinez, Gonzales’ fourth trey of the contest, and a Puentes and-one seeing them to a double-digit lead with three minutes to go in the game, 53-41.

Both ends of a one-and-one from Martinez, an Elisa Cardenas breakaway layup off the steal, and a Gonzales jumper helped round out the final, 59-44.

Gonzales and Puentes both tied ‘Topper Alex Calderon atop the leaderboard with 14 points on the game, followed by Houghtaling with nine, Riggs with eight, and Martinez with seven.

“It was a tough first half for us but a really good second half,” Coach Houghtaling said. “I was really pleased with the difference. I don’t know if it was intensity or focus, but the first half was more like a track meet than a game, and the second half, we dictated the tempo on the offensive end.”

Stacia Martinez powers into the lane past Los Alamos’ Jenna Harris during the first half Saturday. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

The final minutes of the game didn’t pass quite as smoothly for the Lady Bulldogs Friday against Capital.

Leading 49-39 going into the fourth quarter, Artesia watched as Jaguar Ethena Silva went on a tear, racking up 13 points, most of which were the result of turnovers, offensive boards, or lags in transition.

A pair of Puentes baskets in the first two minutes were all the offense the Lady ‘Dogs could manage until Crandall hit the front end of a set of technical foul free throws at the 4:33 mark. From there, it would be over a minute till Artesia scored again – this time on two from the stripe by Brehnan Davis.

With around a minute-and-a-half left to play, Artesia’s lead had been cut to four, 56-52, but after the two squads traded unproductive trips up and down the court, the Lady Bulldogs were able to successfully move the ball around the horn long enough to run all but 30 seconds off the clock.

Houghtaling ended the pass-a-thon with a basket, and following Silva’s final score, Riggs delivered a layup and the final – 60-54 – off a baseball pass by Houghtaling.

With Crandall posting five points and Puentes four, the Lady Bulldogs had gotten off to a solid start in the contest, leading 13-9 after one complete, having turned the ball over just once while forcing five Jaguar cough-ups.

A Davis jumper in the second was followed by consecutive old-fashioned three-point plays from herself and Martinez, and a pair of Puentes buckets in the paint and an Ali Mauritsen longball helped see Artesia to a nine-point edge at the half, 31-22.

Puentes set up shop under the basket in the early minutes of the third and had eight points to show for it, and a three from Riggs and back-to-back buckets by Houghtaling gave the Lady Bulldogs their important 10-point edge going into the fourth.

Puentes finished with 20 on the night, Crandall 10, Houghtaling eight, and Davis and Martinez seven each.

The Lady Bulldogs will now have a few days to prepare for their final pre-Christmas outing Friday, as they join the Bulldogs in a trip to Carlsbad, where they’ll square off against the Class 6A second-ranked Cavegirls (10-2).

“It’s going to be a tough game,” said Houghtaling. “Carlsbad’s really good, it isn’t any secret, and we’re just going to take this as a chance to get better for district.

“We’d love to go down there and play well and beat them, don’t get me wrong, but if we don’t, our season doesn’t hinge on that. We’re going to take this week as an opportunity to have four great days of practice and on day of challenge on the end.”