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Joe Willingham slams the ball home during the first quarter Thursday at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Joe Willingham’s second dunk of the first quarter sounded through Bulldog Pit Thursday like an audible exclamation point. The cheers of the crowd added a few decibels, as the Runnin’ ‘Dogs exited the opening eight minutes with a 10-point lead over Class 6A Hobbs.

The boys in orange had pounced on the 10th-ranked Eagles early and didn’t let up, bumping their advantage to 16 at the half. And despite a late charge by the visitors, Artesia was able to hold on for the 83-78 win, their first over Hobbs since Jan. 6, 2009.

“That’s a good Hobbs team,” head coach Michael Mondragon said following the bout. “That’s a good basketball team from a basketball school, and we haven’t beaten those guys in a long time.

“I’m proud for our team. It’s a journey, a process, but this is just another notch on our belt that gives us some confidence in knowing we can play with the best teams in the state if we do what we need to do.”

Topping that to-do list was limiting the turnovers and subsequent fast breaks that have long been the ‘Dogs’ downfall in the matchup. While Artesia did surrender the ball a few times in the opening half, they forced more from the Eagles. The ball control, meanwhile, allowed the Bulldogs to create the shots they wanted, resulting in a 58-percent performance from the field in the first two quarters.

Taylor Null got the ball rolling for Artesia with a pair of free throws off a foul on the offensive boards, and following a Clay Houghtaling three-pointer, another Null putback and a hard drive into the lane by Chaney Hardt had Artesia up 9-0 and the Eagles somewhat shell shocked.

Hobbs finally got on the board at the 4:33 mark on a bucket in the paint by 6’4” Clay Strasner, and the senior would strike again a few moments later. But in between, Willingham established himself as the tall guy of the hour, following an alley-oop on the pass from Houghtaling with a putback, then a breakaway dunk off the steal.

Houghtaling’s second trey of the period was answered twice over by Eagles Ramon Cruz and Teren Smith to bring Hobbs within six, 18-12, but a Tyler Greenwood jumper, a Houghtaling bucket, and Willingham’s second dunk off the loose ball pass from Luke Nelson made it 25-15 Artesia going into the second.

Hobbs was able to trim its deficit to seven early, but back-to-back shots off the glass by Hardt kicked off a 14-3 run by the Bulldogs that also included baskets from Anthony Armendariz and Cody Smith, four consecutive free throws from Greenwood following a technical foul, and a pair from the stripe by Null.

Taylor Null skies to grab an offensive rebound over Hobbs’ Davonte Morgan during the first half. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Up by 16 at that point, the ‘Dogs were able to maintain that margin through the break with help from a Null and-one and a longball by Greenwood, 49-33.

A rash of missed shots to start the third, however, gave the Eagles the opening they’d been seeking. Hobbs outscored Artesia 15-2 to storm back within three, 51-48, by the four-minute mark, prompting one overzealous Eagle fan to bellow onto the court that it was all “just a matter of time.”

Whether or not the ‘Dogs heard, they took their own brand of offense to the turn of events.

Willingham was left wide open under the basket twice in transition to stem the bleeding, and a Null putback and two drives to the hoop from Hardt and Smith gave Artesia some needed breathing room heading into the fourth, 61-53. They unfortunately went there without Null, who was hammered after securing an offensive rebound and went down with a minor injury.

The boys in orange were able to stay between nine and 11 points in front of the Eagles through the final four minutes on five points from Hardt, four from Smith, and three by Armendariz, and a pair of Smith free throws, one from Nelson, and a strong move in the paint by Willingham made it 78-66 with just under two minutes to play.

There was no doubt who was leading Hobbs’ final charge, as Strasner posted his ninth point of the quarter to bring the Eagles within 10. Both ends of a one-and-one by Alec Finney at the 1:14 mark made it 78-70, and despite a transition layup from Greenwood, a Strasner three and a pair from the stripe had Hobbs within five, 80-75, with 32 seconds on the clock.

Hardt hit one of two freebies to keep it at least a two-shot affair, and after a Finney miss and a blown dunk attempt on the rebound by Strasner, the Eagles sent Nelson to the line, who delivered both shots to put Artesia up by eight, 83-75.

Finney was fouled after a missed attempt from beyond the arc and converted all three free throws, but with eight seconds remaining, not even a steal on the inbound pass could make a difference for the Eagles, as the Runnin’ ‘Dogs secured the 83-78 victory.

“This was really a whole team effort,” Mondragon said. “Our bench came in and did some good things. (Hobbs) threw a lot of punches at us at times, but we never folded, never got too rattled. There’s a lot of things we have to get better at, but if we can keep playing like that, it’s going to win a lot of games for us.”

Willingham led the ‘Dogs on the evening with 17 points, followed by Hardt with 14, Smith with 12, and Greenwood and Null with 11 each. Strasner finished with 24 for Hobbs.

“I’m just really pleased with the improvement we made just from Saturday to now,” said Mondragon. “Monday, we got back in the gym and really focused on fundamentals, really got into taking care of the ball and being aggressive. We’re still just trying to get our basketball legs and mind under us, and it’s always good to see all that work you put in during the week pay off.”

The Bulldogs (4-2) will now prepare to join the Lady ‘Dogs today in traveling to Carlsbad for Round One of the Eddy County War series. The Artesia girls (4-2) will take on the Cavegirls (10-2) at 5:30 p.m., followed by the boys against the Cavemen (3-6) at 7 p.m.

“We just want to thank the community and everybody who supports the program,” said Mondragon. “We had a good crowd tonight. It’s going to be an exciting year for Bulldog basketball, and this was a great step for us tonight. But we’re just getting started, and we’ve got a lot of work to do and a lot of things we have to get better at.

“We’re looking forward to another great crowd tomorrow night for the big Eddy County battle. Carlsbad is going to give us all we want, and it’ll be a great Friday to go watch some good basketball before the Christmas weekend.”