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There were ups and downs aplenty this weekend for the Bulldog and Lady Bulldog basketball teams at their 2017 holiday tournaments. But there was one thing of which both coaches could be sure: Their squads gained invaluable experience against a veritable smorgasbord of quality opponents.

“You can never tell the future, you never know what’s going to happen down the road, but with the way we’re playing right now, we’re going to be ready for whatever the future has for us,” Runnin’ ‘Dog head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday following his team’ 47-36 win over Lovington in the Poe Corn Invitational third-place game. “We’ve got guys getting a lot of minutes right now, young guys getting playing time, and we’re doing a lot of great things.

“These guys are being coachable, they’re trying to do what we ask them to do, and they’re playing hard. And if they continue to do those three things, the scoreboard is going to take care of itself.”

“I think this tournament was a great experience for us,” said Lady ‘Dog head coach Jeff Houghtaling after the Artesia girls finished sixth at the Los Lunas Holiday Tournament with a 48-45 overtime loss to Class 6A Santa Fe High. “There were a lot of situations we’re going to learn from, and I think this weekend is really going to help prepare us for district.”

After coming from behind to defeat Los Alamos 52-43 in their opening bout Thursday, the Bulldogs were tripped up in the Poe Corn semifinals by host Roswell High. That placed them in the third-place match – and into their third and final District 4-AAAAA preview of the early season – against Lovington.

Once again, a shaky start from the field had the ‘Dogs playing catchup, but they were able to find their feet, and the win, in the second half despite battling a bevy of outside factors.

“Today was just an ugly third game of the tournament, but our guys battled, and they played hard,” said Mondragon. “We were a little fatigued, and I knew we would be. We’ve got some guys banged up, we had two or three guys battling the flu, some guys battling colds… but like we told them after the game, the greatest teams find a way to win ugly games.

“We’re not going to look back three or four weeks from now and say, ‘That was an ugly win.’ It’ll just be a win.”

It looked as though the boys in orange were by no means headed in that direction in the opening quarter of play Saturday afternoon.

With a rash of turnovers and just one bucket from the field, courtesy of a Chaney Hardt layup, the Bulldogs quickly fell behind Lovington – or, more accurately, Lovington’s Alijah Ballard, who accounted for all of the Wildcats’ points – early, 10-3.

Hardt continued to swing away at the ‘Cats as the second quarter commenced, notching another layup and two from the free-throw line, and slowly but surely, his teammates began to come around.

Joe Willingham powered into the lane for a bucket to bring Artesia back within one, 10-9, but a 7-1 run by the boys in blue made it 17-10 at the midway point. A trey from Tyler Greenwood and a free throw apiece by Cody Smith and Willingham, however, kept the ‘Dogs’ deficit manageable at the half, 19-15.

Artesia stepped up its defensive game in the third quarter of play, forcing a string of Lovington turnovers and misses. And although the Bulldogs coughed the ball up 10 times themselves, shots off the glass by Willingham and Hardt, and back to back offensive putbacks from Anthony Armendariz put them in the lead, 24-21.

A Cody Smith jumper and a Willingham and-one closed out the period and sent Artesia into the fourth up by four, 29-25.

The Wildcats were able to hang within two points through the early goings of the final quarter, matching six points from Smith in kind. But the Bulldog junior was on a roll and would deliver two more hard drives into the lane for points to put the ‘Dogs up 39-35 as the game fell under three minutes.

A breakaway layup off the steal by Hardt made it 41-36 as the final 60 seconds began. The ‘Cats had no choice but to foul, and Hardt made them pay, going 6-6 from the stripe in the final seconds to close out the 47-36 win.

“(Playing two district opponents back to back) was something we were hoping wouldn’t happen, but when you’re playing in a tournament where all four of the teams in your district are there, that’s how it goes sometimes,” Mondragon said. “And it just goes to show you how tough our district is going to be this season.

“At this point in the year, it’s a grind, and we’re still working on finding a way to put together four good quarters. But we were fortunate enough tonight to play two and still com out and get a victory.”

Hardt led the ‘Dogs on the afternoon with 16 points, followed by Smith with 13, and Ballard finished with 19 for the Wildcats.

Earlier in the day, the Lady Bulldogs had been locked in a similar battle down to the wire with the Demonettes of Santa Fe High that unfortunately didn’t result in the same outcome.

The girls in orange had come out strong against Santa Fe, taking a commanding 14-4 lead out of the opening period on a pair of buckets by Paityn Houghtaling, a three and a free throw from Kyrah Gonzales, and a basket apiece by Stacia Martinez, Brehnan Davis and Kali Crandall.

The Demonettes snapped slightly out of their funk in the second, posting 12, but the Lady ‘Dogs continued to work well from the field. Alexa Riggs logged a trey and a jumper, and Artesia continued to spread the scoring around with points from Gracie Puentes, Elisa Cardenas, Crandall and Houghtaling en route to a 31-16 lead at the break.

“We came out and played really well in the first half,” Coach Houghtaling said Saturday. “We were up by 15 at the half, did a lot of good things… we were shooting the ball well, generating turnovers on the defensive end.

“Then we just came out in the second half and started missing the shots we’d been hitting in the first.”

In a flashback to their opening-round loss to Bloomfield Thursday, the Lady Bulldogs managed just five points in the third and fourth quarters, all courtesy of Houghtaling in the former and via a Houghtaling basket and free throw, and two from the line by Puentes in the latter.

It was the break Santa Fe had been looking for, and they managed to tie the game at 41-all.

“We really slowed down on our scoring and missed a few from the foul line we should’ve made, but we still had a chance to win it at the end of regulation,” Coach Houghtaling said. “We took a time out, executed really well what we wanted to try to do; we got just the shot we wanted, and we missed it.

“But a lot of times, success an be found in that. If you can execute the play and get the shot you want, that’s successful. You’re not going to make all the shots all the time, and we just happened not to hit that one.”

Artesia also had a chance in overtime, but the momentum was swinging a bit too far the Demonettes’ way by that point. Santa Fe outscored the Lady Bulldogs 7-4 in the session for the 48-45 win.

“Overtime was exciting, it was back and forth, and we had an opportunity to tie it back up again but didn’t,” said Houghtaling. “It was a tough one, and I sure wish we could’ve won it. I felt like we were the better team today, but it just didn’t come out that way.”

Houghtaling finished with 18 points to lead Artesia on the contest, and Martinez earned an All-Tournament Team nod, capping off a 25-point weekend.

In other final action at the Los Lunas Holiday Tournament, Alamogordo defeated Gadsden for seventh place, 55-25; Eldorado edged Valencia for third, 50-48; and host Los Lunas took the title with a 67-31 win over Bloomfield.

At the Poe Corn, Gallup defeated Los Alamos in the consolation final, 57-51, and Roswell High claimed the championship with an 81-59 victory over Goddard.

Bulldogs vs. Roswell

Considering their shorthandedness, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs couldn’t have asked for a better start to their Poe Corn semifinal against the Coyotes Friday.

Using solid defense to force turnovers and keep the boys in red out of their rhythm, the Bulldogs took an early lead and fought to keep it in the first. A Greenwood three and a Willingham putback got the ‘Dogs started, and consecutive buckets from Clay Houghtaling, Willingham and Smith midway through put Artesia up 13-6.

A free-throw line jumper from Smith and a shot off the glass by Willingham helped the ‘Dogs stay on top, 18-13, by period’s end despite a comeback charge from Roswell junior standout Tarren Burrola.

Burrola also got himself in foul trouble in the period and was forced to spend much of the second and third quarters on the bench. That would have been a major advantage for the Bulldogs, had Burrola’s freshman brother, Taymon, not proven an equal threat.

The younger Burrola posted 12 points in the second to nearly single-handedly lead the Coyotes’ comeback effort. But with three’s from Smith and Greenwood, a bucket each by Greenwood and Houghtaling, and a Willingham and-one, Artesia was able to hold onto their lead at intermission, 33-31.

But the ‘Dogs went entirely frigid from the field to start the second half.

Managing just a trio of baskets and committing 10 turnovers, Artesia was forced to watch as Taymon Burrola once again guided Roswell to a breakout quarter and a 54-39 lead heading into the fourth.

There, the Bulldogs matched the Coyotes nearly point for point, with Smith and Willingham contributing two baskets apiece; but the damage in the third had been done, and the ‘Dogs fell, 69-53.

“You have to play four good quarters of basketball against great teams, and we can,” Mondragon said. “We have a lot of guys stepping up right now, a lot of guys playing a lot of minutes who don’t normally do that.

“We just had a really bad third quarter. We couldn’t hit our shots, we didn’t guard like we’re able, and you can’t do that against good teams.”

Willingham finished with 16 points to lead Artesia, followed by Smith with 15, and Taymon Burrola led all scorers with 30.

Lady Bulldogs vs. Gadsden

The Artesia girls shook off the doldrums of their Thursday loss with a solid effort Friday in a Los Lunas consolation semifinal against 6A Gadsden.

With Martinez and Cardenas contributing from beyond the arc, and Puentes, Crandall and Houghtaling getting work done in the paint, the Lady Bulldogs bounded out to an 18-11 lead over the Lady Panthers in the first quarter of play.

It was a welcome quarter of solid shooting for an Artesia team that struggled mightily from the field the day before, and they’d do themselves one better in the second.

Ten points from Martinez, five from Puentes, a Cardenas trey, and a bucket by Crandall combined to give the Lady ‘Dogs a solid 38-20 advantage at the half.
Both teams would go a bit quiet offensively in the third, as Gadsden outscored Artesia 9-6, but the Lady Bulldogs would regain their legs in the fourth, tacking on another 18 on their way to the 62-43 win.

“That was a good game for us,” Coach Houghtaling said. “We bounced back and shot the ball well. It was an intense game; I’ve gotta hand it to Gadsden, they were full of fire the whole game, and they really kept us on our toes.

“I thought the girls did a good job of responding to a real emotional team.”

Moving Forward

With the 1-2 weekend, the Lady Bulldogs moved to 5-5 on the season.

“We’ve got a couple of weeks here with some more really good-quality opponents coming up, so we’re just going to continue to fine tune,” Coach Houghtaling said. “I think despite the losses, the trip up here really served its purpose. The girls did a good job of coming together and playing hard.

“We’re doing a lot of good things, we just unfortunately weren’t able to get the wins we wanted. But all in all, I can never complain about the girls’ effort. They’re just such a good group of kids, they want to come out and do what you ask every night.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, improved to 6-4 with their 2-1 finish at the Poe Corn.

“We’re winning games and beating teams with guys hurt, guys sick, and not very much depth on the bench right now, and that’s just a credit to the team we have this year,” said Mondragon. “They go out and they compete, and I’m really proud of all the guys who played this weekend.”

The Lady ‘Dogs will now prepare for a three-game weekend that will include home stands Tuesday and Friday against Portales and Clovis, followed by a road trip to Deming Saturday.

“We’re fixing to get to the point in our season where we’re going to catch up with everybody in terms of how many games we’ve played,” Houghtaling said. “We’re going to have three and four games a week here for a while, so it’s time to start putting together that experience we’ve got into some complete games.

“I don’t think there’s been a game yet this year where we haven’t played probably three quarters better than every team we’ve played, and definitely at least two. There’s always just one quarter where we kind of come out and stub our toe, whether it’s at the foul line or missing open shots or having one bad quarter of turnovers. But I think it’s going to start sinking in and adding up, and I know that really by the time we get to district, the girls will be performing well and peaking at the right time for us to continue to work toward our goals.”

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will have a few days off to prepare for a long road trip of their own to the Gallup Invitational Jan. 4-6. They’ll open there at 1 p.m. Thursday against Deming.

“We’re going to take the next two days off and just try to get healthy,” said Mondragon. “I just want the guys to rest up, recuperate, and then be ready to go hard at it Tuesday before we head up to Gallup Wednesday. We’re looking forward to coming back and focusing on the fundamentals, taking care o the ball, making sure we execute on offense.

“I just want to wish everybody a Happy New Year, as well. We’re excited. We’re 6-4, we’ve beaten some good teams, and I really like the way we’re playing, the way we’re maturing and growing… it’s a journey, and the guys are taking it in stride. We just have to keep focusing on us, and if we do that, we’ll have a good opportunity come district and state time.”