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(Courtesy Photo)

Sometimes a loss just hangs around in the back of a team’s collective consciousness.

Most often, it’s of the playoff or district variety, but regular-season shortcomings can take their toll as well, and such was the case for the Bulldogs with their second-place finish last year at the Gallup Invitational.

Artesia had entered the locker room at halftime with a lead over the host Bengals in the tournament championship, and it had looked as though they were poised to significantly increase it as the third quarter began. But then the ‘Dogs’ shooting hands just went cold, and Gallup was able to cruise to victory.

Obviously, a rematch with the Bengals was at the top of Artesia’s wish list this weekend, but it wasn’t to be, as Gallup was banished to the third-place game by Sandia Prep in Friday’s semifinal round, 67-61. But the ‘Dogs knew they’d have an equal test from the big and aggressive Sundevils in the title game.

Just beginning to work a few athletes back into the lineup following injury, the boys in orange showed what they can do when a full team effort is in effect Saturday, putting together an overall solid offensive effort and playing solid defense to both limit Sandia Prep in the opening quarters of play and prevent the ‘Devils’ comeback attempt in the last en route to a 58-48 win.

“I’m just really proud of our guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday from the road. “One of our goals when we left on Wednesday was to just take it one game at a time. We left last year with a bad taste in our mouth, and we were fortunate enough to get back in that game again and make enough plays to get it done.”

The Bulldogs took a commanding lead out of the first quarter of play, going up 12-1 on treys by Luke Nelson and Chaney Hardt, and a bucket apiece from Hardt, Cody Smith, and Taylor Null.

On top 15-4 heading into the second, the ‘Dogs would log two more field goals – a 15-foot jumper by Clay Houghtaling and a drive to the hoop from Hardt – before Sandia Prep posted its first of the night, a jumper by Jacob Montoya that made it 19-8.

Two more buckets by Houghtaling and Smith sandwiched a trey from Sundevil standout Jack Henderson and helped Artesia to a nine-point edge at the break, 23-14.

Houghtaling kicked off the second half with a longball, Smith added a pair of layups, and Hardt posted a jumper and two from the stripe to bump the ‘Dogs’ lead to double digits in the third, but with Henderson getting in a few licks and David Gelb a three, Sandia Prep was able to pull back within eight heading into the fourth, 37-29.

A reverse layup from Houghtaling and shots off the glass by Joe Willingham and Tyler Greenwood returned some of Artesia’s breathing room, and two baskets and a free throw from Greenwood and a pair from the stripe by Willingham had the Bulldogs leading by 15 with under three minutes to play, 50-35.

Sandia Prep was able to post two more from beyond the arc, but the ‘Dogs went 8-10 from the line down the stretch to keep their advantage comfortable.

“We played great defensive basketball today,” Mondragon said, “and we had different guys step up every night. This was a great team tournament for us, and it just shows we can play with anybody in the most hostile environments.”

Hardt finished with 16 points for the Bulldogs on the night, followed by Smith with 13. Henderson had 21 for the Sundevils.

The ‘Dogs had a little more trouble putting the Fighting Scouts of Window Rock away in Friday’s semifinals but used a stellar offensive run in the fourth quarter to turn a five-point game at the midway mark into a 12-point win, 75-63.

Tristan Nez established himself as the Scouts’ essential one-man show in the opening quarter of play Friday, nearly single-handedly battling the Bulldogs to a 17-13 score, with six points apiece from Willingham and Greenwood propelling Artesia.

A shot off the glass by Willingham and a bank-shot and and-one from Luke Nelson made it 24-17 early in the second. Greenwood posted a pair from beyond the arc, but they were answered both times by Nez. A Houghtaling trey and back-to-back jumpers from Hardt, however, were finally able to put Artesia’s lead in double figures, 37-26.

Baskets from Willingham and Smith looked as though they’d keep it there at the half, but a three at the buzzer from Adrian Destea brought the Scouts back within eight, 41-33.
Window Rock was able to do more damage from the perimeter to outscore the ‘Dogs 15-12 in the third quarter, and a Nez jumper and trey made it a three-point game to start the fourth, 56-53.

But from there, the boys in orange stepped on the gas.

Consecutive baskets from Smith and Willingham were followed by a Greenwood three and another pair of back-to-back buckets by Nelson and Willingham. Smith then trailed another Willingham shot with two of his own to make it 73-58 with 1:23 on the clock.

Five more points from the Scouts could only bring them back within 10, 73-63, and Willingham capped off his 18-point contest with one in the paint. He was followed in scoring by Smith with 17 and Greenwood with 15.

“What I’m most pleased with at the end of the day is that we’re responding – we’re getting better,” Mondragon said. “And that’s what you want. You want to win, but even more than that, you want to improve and see that the things you’re working on are getting better.

“I’m happy for these guys and happy for our seniors that we could go in there and win this championship.”

Smith, Willingham and Hardt were named to the All-Tournament Team for their efforts on the weekend, with Smith taking MVP honors.

The 3-0 weekend bumps Artesia’s overall record to 9-4, but they’ll have little time to celebrate – not to mention recuperate. The ‘Dogs return to Bulldog Pit for the first time since Dec. 21 Tuesday for a 5:30 p.m. game against Chaparral, and they’ll return to the road Friday and Saturday to take on Los Alamos and Del Norte.

“It’s been a long week for us, a long stretch for us, and we’re happy to get back and have a home game,” said Mondragon. “We had six straight road games, went 5-1, and now we’re going to rest for a couple of days and get ready to get back at it.

“I just want to thank everybody, all the fans who came up here to Gallup. We had a little section, but they were loud and they held it down, so thanks to all the parents that made this trip, and thanks to our guys and the guys on our coaching staff. I know our wives are missing us, our kids are missing us, and we’re happy to get back, but we’re definitely not satisfied. We’ve got a lot of work still to do, and we’re looking forward to starting again at home Tuesday.”