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Taylor Null puts up a jumper over Lovington’s Isaiah Hinson during the first quarter Saturday at Bulldog Pit. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

What Saturday’s Class 5A state playoff game at Bulldog Pit essentially came down to was a group of seniors fighting tooth and nail to extend their season.

Fifth-ranked Artesia and No. 12 Lovington were meeting for the fifth time this season in the first-round bout, for the third time in less than a month. The Runnin’ ‘Dogs had taken all four of the previous matchups, and the Wildcats came Saturday with their claws out.

The Bulldogs trailed Lovington at the end of each of the first three quarters of play, 43-40 going into the fourth. The team needed its upperclassmen. And they answered the call.

The ‘Cats had a senior of their own waging a personal war in the second half at the Pit, and Christian Fitts would kick off the final eight minutes with a three to put Lovington up by six, 46-40.

Taylor Null calmly stepped to the arc and returned the favor for Artesia, however, and that seemed to light a fire under the boys in orange. Joe Willingham fought off a triple-team to put one off the glass, Tyler Greenwood logged his second trey of the game, Null delivered an offensive putback, and Greenwood went 1-2 at the line to turn the tables, 51-46, over the course of a four-minute run.

A Gage Sandoval three preceded the front end of a one-and-one by Kale Mauritsen, and Fitts narrowly missed knotting the game at the 43-second mark with a 2-3 showing from the stripe.

With time running out, the ‘Cats were forced to begin fouling, and as he has been all year, Chaney Hardt was automatic in the clutch, draining both ends of a one-and-one to keep Artesia in front by three, 54-51.

Fitts would deliver those points in one fell swoop with 27 seconds on the clock to tie it up, but with a calm collectedness Artesia fans have seen on multiple occasions over the course of the season, the ‘Dogs’ seniors took control, with Null working his way into position for a bucket in the paint at the three-second mark that sent the packed house into a frenzy.

Multiple time-outs later, the ‘Cats were ready to try a series of quick passes in an attempt to create a viable shot, but in a twist of fate that hurt even the hearts of the Sea of Orange, Fitts stepped out of bounds as he attempted to launch a long pass, returning the ball to Artesia.

Hardt then ended any hope of a miracle for Lovington with two more from the line, and the Bulldogs punched their ticket to the Class 5A quarterfinal round, 58-54.

“I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said following the contest. “We had a schedule full of road games this year, guys get hurt throughout the season, playing a team tonight for the fifth time, and we still find a way to come out and win games.

“I’m so proud of the resilience we have. The work ethic these guys have… they’ve dedicated themselves to this program since June, and I’m so excited to see them come out and find a way to get to Albuquerque tonight and continue our season, our journey towards a state championship.”

As was the case in Artesia’s District 4-AAAAA Tournament championship win over Lovington last week, the ‘Dogs didn’t put forth the cleanest of games. They attempted just 30 total shots in the contest, hampered at times by turnovers, but made 20 of those count. They didn’t have their best evening at the free-throw line but converted when it mattered most.

And whereas the Wildcats split their scoring between nine different athletes – with Fitts (15) and Alijah Ballard (12) leading the way – only six Bulldogs got on the board Saturday. The top four in scoring were all veterans, with Null posting 19 points, Willingham 16, Hardt eight, and Greenwood seven.

Willingham and Null kicked things off for Artesia in the first quarter of play to make it 4-2, but from there, the ‘Dogs’ offense went cold. Lovington took full advantage, rattling of 10 unanswered before Willingham finally ended the drought with two from the line, but from there, Artesia rallied, closing out the period with a Willingham and-one, a Greenwood three, and a pair of Hardt free throws to pull within one, 15-14, going into the second.

The Wildcats opened that quarter with a 5-0 run, but a hard drive to the basket by Mauritsen and a Clay Houghtaling longball kept the ‘Dogs within striking distance. Three consecutive buckets by Null in the waning minutes reinstated Artesia’s one-point deficit at the break, 28-27.

After such an erratic start, to be within a shot at halftime was an accomplishment in and of itself, and in the locker room, Mondragon called on his team to shake off the first two quarters, refocus, and regroup.

“I wasn’t happy with the way we guarded in the first half,” said the coach. “We gave up some offensive boards and easy shots, and we just needed to get calm, get composed, and do what we had to do in the second half.

“I told the guys, ‘This is going to be a dog fight to the end. This is state tournament basketball, everything before this is out the window – just play basketball and find a way to make more plays than them,’ and they did.”

Three buckets from Willingham and two by Null to start the third saw Artesia to a quick six-point lead, 38-32, but following a Hardt jumper, Lovington would close out the quarter on a 9-0 run to lead by three going into the fourth.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our seniors,” Mondragon said. “All of them stepped up in the fourth quarter to make some huge plays. Any time you have success, senior leadership is a big part of that, and they sure did shine tonight.”

With the victory, the Bulldogs (20-7) will move on to face No. 4 Capital (22-7) at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at The Pit in Albuquerque. The Jaguars defeated No. 13 Miyamura 78-64 Saturday to advance.

In other first-round games, No. 1 Espanola Valley defeated No. 16 Valencia 68-51 and will take on No. 8 St. Pius – who topped No. 9 Gallup 58-47 – at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. In the bottom half of the bracket, No. 6 Roswell High bested No. 11 Del Norte 58-45 and will be taking on No. 3 Belen – a 56-29 winner over No. 14 Grants – at 8 a.m. Wednesday, while No. 2 Los Lunas (who defeated No. 15 Goddard 64-48) and No. 7 Kirtland Central (who beat No. 10 Alamogordo 65-51) will square off at 3 p.m.

Artesia met up with Capital in their fifth game of the 2017-18 season Dec. 16, falling 70-41, but much has happened between then and now.

“We know a little bit about them since we played them, but they’re a different team now,” said Mondragon. “They lost their best player, so they’re a different team, and we’re a different team, too.

“Us coaches are going to get together tomorrow afternoon and make sure we do whatever we need to do to get ready for Capital.”

And while the ‘Dogs will be three-and-a-half hours away from the City of Champions from here on out, Mondragon says they’ll know their support system is with them regardless.

“Man, that was a fun game tonight,” said the coach. “The crowd was great, the student section did great… they answered our calling, and we just can’t thank them enough. The crowd was a huge part of why we got that win tonight, and it’s great to see the community get behind our boys.

“These guys have sure worked hard, and we want to thank everybody who supports the basketball program. If anybody’s not doing anything next week, take a trip up north. We knew we have a challenge ahead of us, but we’re ready for it. The boys are anxious, and they’re ready to keep this season going.”