Published: 2:52 pm, Sun. Feb. 25th, 2018Updated: 2:50 pm
It wasn’t the most perfect game the Bulldog basketball team has put together. But the best things in life usually aren’t.
All that mattered in the end was the roar of the crowd and the 14 athletes hoisting the District 4-AAAAA Tournament trophy.
“I’m just proud of these guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said following his team’s 48-39 win Saturday over Lovington at Bulldog Pit. “They came out, executed the game plan, took care of the ball, made the shots we needed to make and guarded when we needed to guard.
“At this point in the season, all you have to do is find a way to win, and fortunately, we were able to make enough plays tonight to do that.”
With the victory, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs secured both the regular-season and district tournament titles – their first since the 2006-07 season – and likely a top-five seed in the Class 5A state playoff bracket, as well.
Both teams had a slow night from the field Saturday, but while the ‘Dogs only attempted 30 shots, they made 53 percent of them count to Lovington’s 10-48 for 21 percent. The contest was largely a defensive battle, with the two squads staying under 10 turnovers apiece, as well.
“Any time you have a week off like we did with that much rest, you have to knock off some of that rust,” Monrdagon said. “I thought our guards did a great job of handling the ball against their pressure, and our defense played great.
“To keep a team to 17 points in the first half, 39 in the game… that’s less than 10 points per quarter. So while our offense didn’t have its sharpest game, our defense was strong, and that helped us get a district championship.”
The Wildcats were first on the board Saturday before a sizable crowd at the Pit, but following two drives to the hoop by Kale Mauritsen and one from Chaney Hardt, the Bulldogs took the lead.
Tyler Greenwood delivered two from the free-throw line, but it looked as though the ‘Cats might carry the advantage into the second after a trey and a jumper by Alijah Ballard. Hardt barreled into the lane again, however, for a bucket that gave Artesia a one-point edge by period’s end, 10-9.
The teams combined for just 15 points in the second quarter of play, with the Bulldogs spending the first half of the period expanding their lead on baskets by Hardt and Joe Willingham, and a Luke Nelson longball.
Back-to-back three’s one minute apart by Lovington’s Isaiah Hinson and Keshon Hilliard, however, knotted the game at 17-all, and neither team would find the hoop through the remaining three minutes of the half.
The Bulldogs came out a bit stronger on offense in the third, with Hardt racking up seven points, Mauritsen adding a pair of baskets, and Willingham logging one off the glass. And as Artesia continued to hold the ‘Cats under double-digit scoring, they’d carry a five-point lead into the final eight minutes, 30-25.
The bulk of the fourth quarter played out from the stripe, but a trio of baskets in the early goings by Hardt and one from Taylor Null gave the ‘Dogs a nine-point edge, 40-31, with under 2:30 left in the game.
The Wildcats would score two baskets and go 10-12 at the line in the final moments, but three free throws late from Null and Hardt, and two by Mauritsen helped the boys in orange inch away for the 48-39 win.
Hardt led all scorers on the night with 22 points, followed by Mauritsen with 11. Ballard finished with 20 for the ‘Cats.
The Artesia boys (19-7, 6-1) will join together to tune into the state seeding and selection show.
“Wherever they put us, we’ll be ready to get after it,” said Mondragon. “Our schedule’s very battle-tested, it’s a road-heavy schedule, so we’re ready for anything that comes our way.
“Myself and the other coaches will be getting some discs out and making fajitas for the boys and their families, so it’ll be a celebration of where we are while we see where we’re going in the future, and we’re looking forward to that bonding time.”
With the ‘Dogs appearing to be a lock for a first-round home game, Mondragon also encourages Artesia fans to get ready to Pack the Pit once again Saturday.
“Calling all Bulldog fans: We need you on Saturday,” said the coach. “From here on out, we’ve got four games till we can call ourselves a state champion, and we need to fill this gym up to the rafters, get loud, and get crazy.
“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to be able to host a state game. We’ve worked so hard this year to give ourselves this chance, so we’ll be looking for four quarters of good basketball and getting up there to Albuquerque.”