. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Taylor Null sails in for a jumper during the fourth quarter. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Those unable to witness the Bulldogs’ Class 5A state semifinal against Espanola Valley Thursday evening at The Pit in Albuquerque can take the word of everyone who did, as it’s surely an across-the-board consensus: the Runnin’ ‘Dogs represented Artesia like champions.

They fought. More accurately stated, they warred. They left everything and then some on the floor. And while Espanola Valley’s fans may have been the loudest, the ‘Dogs’ are undoubtedly the proudest.

The Sundevils ultimately walked away with the win, 63-59 in overtime. A four-point loss in OT can obviously be maddening to an athlete and a coach. It’s too easy to look back over the scorebook, find the one little thing here that could’ve been done, the one there that shouldn’t have been, that would have changed the outcome.

But down the road, when the sting wears off and the Bulldogs look back, the only thing they should remember is that a team no one in Albuquerque gave a chance to “hang with” the top-ranked team in Class 5A did much more than that. And they did it together, as a team.

“Like I told these guys in the locker room, nobody thought we were going to do this this year,” head coach Michael Mondragon said Thursday. “We lost seven seniors last year, but I told these guys in the summer, we’re going to be scary good. And the number-one reason is, they’re coachable. These guys do whatever we ask them to do. They’re cohesive, they’ve got each other’s back. You saw tonight, every one of them stepped up, every one of them made good plays at crucial times, and that’s so fun to coach.

“I hate to say bye to them. I wish I could hold them back and do a red-shirt year, but I couldn’t be prouder of them. First district championship in 10 years, first state semifinal in 12 years, all because of them and the work they’ve put in, the trust they have in each other. I love them to death and I’m going to miss them, but they set a great precedent for our program and the underclassmen coming up.”

Once again at the state tournament, the Bulldogs held a significant size advantage over their opponent, and they used it to their advantage.

Joe Wilingham wins the opening tip for Artesia. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Six-foot-five senior post Joe Willingham shone under the basket, battling his way through double- and triple-teams for 23 points in the paint on the night, and junior Cody Smith followed him there, driving into the lane through hands, arms and elbows to deliver 15.

Four buckets by the former and one from the latter, along with a free throw apiece by Willingham and Taylor Null, kept the ‘Dogs within striking distance in the first quarter of
Thursday’s bout despite a frenetic start by Espanola.

The Sundevils attempted to wear Artesia down early with their full-court press, but despite a few give-aways, the Bulldogs handled it admirably and set themselves up for a strong second quarter.

There, Chaney Hardt would open by following a pair from the stripe with a three to get the ‘Dogs within three, 20-17, and free throws from Anthony Armendariz and Kale Mauritsen, and a Willingham offensive putback, kept them there with 3:30 to go in the half, 24-21.

A drive to the hoop by Hardt and a Smith putback late saw Artesia outscore Espanola 14-12 in the period and trail by just four at the break, 30-26.

“We told the guys, they’re throwing probably some of the best punches they’ve thrown all year, and we’re still here,” said Mondragon. “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing, keep doing what you’ve been coached to do, and we’re going to be fine.

“I don’t think people realize, we have state champions up here, multi-sport athletes, guys competing at the highest level in every sport, and you’ve got to give them credit and understand what kind of athletes we have and what kind of kids we have in Artesia.”

Perhaps a bit surprised by the events of the first half, the Sundevils stepped up their physicality as the third quarter began, and things subsequently got chippy.

Willingham and Smith were both fouled on multiple shots in the period but fought through it to deliver the buckets. The Bulldogs were awarded just a single and-one in the quarter, which Smith delivered following a basket and two previous shots from the line, and a trio under the basket by Willingham, to tie the game at 39-all.

Another Smith drive through a slap and one off the glass by Anthony Armendariz kept the contest knotted at 43 heading into the fourth.

Tyler Greenwood delivers the second of a pair of free throws in the final moments of regulation. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

Null opened that period with a sailing jumper to give Artesia the lead, but a soccer flop on a three-point attempt paid off for the Devils, who made all three free throws. Willingham answered with one under the basket, and Hardt followed the front end of a one-and-one with a trey to make it 51-48 Artesia with 3:47 to go in the game, but a three and a pair of free throws by Espanola gave them a 53-51 lead, and the ‘Dogs’ final points of regulation — both ends of a one-and-one by Tyler Greenwood despite the deafening din coming down from the stands — could only tie it up and send the game to overtime.

There, the breaks unfortunately just didn’t go the ‘Dogs’ way. After missing two attempts from the field, Artesia would turn the ball over, handing Espanola the first basket of the session on a breakaway layup. Willingham answered with an offensive putback, but two more Sundevil layups and a pair of free throws surrounded a pair from the line by Smith to make it 61-57 EV with 46 seconds left.

The Bulldogs missed two more shots before Willingham went to the line, again ignoring the noise to put two through the net to make it a one-shot game, 61-59, but late turnovers prevented the ‘Dogs from responding and gave the Devils the four-point win.

“They’re number one for a reason,” said Mondragon. “They’re a good basketball team. We knew they were going to come out and play, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t be prouder of these guys for the way they fought. Nobody gave us a shot, nobody counted us in. We had a few too many mistakes, but that was two great basketball teams out there today. I’m sorry one team had to lose and it was us, but I couldn’t be happier with the way these guys played for four-and-a-half quarters.”

Espanola Valley coach James Branch was a bit less gracious, opening the post-game press conference with a statement on the ‘Dogs’ size and physicality that devolved from there.

Taylor Null is fouled going up for a basket. There was no call on the play. (Brienne Green – Daily Press)

“Dog gone, can we get a call going to the basket? You know, can we get a call going to the basket?” Branch said. “We got hit pretty hard, man. I think we could’ve lived at the free-throw line tonight. But our guys hung tough despite the physicality. The physicality?

“That’s a football team. We play basketball. Quote that. (My) guys need to be commended, cause dang, this is basketball, it ain’t football.”

If “football” is synonymous with “stellar defense,” the Bulldogs certainly played that all night, guarding the Sundevils apparently more effectively than any other team this season and protecting the basket.

“I got some pretty good blocks, I thought,” said Willingham, crediting his teammates with forcing the Devil guards inside. “I couldn’t have done it without them. We work well together as a team.”

“That’s the way we play, that’s our brand of basketball,” said Mondragon. “We want to get in and use our strength, our physicality, and our athleticism. I’ve seen a lot of tape on them in the last 24 hours, and how many teams can stay in front of those kids? Ours did.”

“Everybody thought we were nothing,” said Hardt. “It was just fun to prove them wrong, that we should be here.”

The Bulldogs will bid a hard farewell to six seniors this season, including Willingham, Hardt, Null, Greenwood, Alfonso Rodriguez and Andrew Veloz. But the legacy they leave behind is as large as the shoes next year’s ‘Dogs will need to fill.

“I couldn’t be prouder of (the seniors),” Mondragon said. “I’m going to miss them. That’s the hardest part of coaching, I think. I took over this program in 2014, and these guys were frustrated. They’d played in the Border Conference championship as freshmen, and they lost. But I told them, ‘Buy in, keep doing what we’re doing, and you’re going to get to The Pit, and you’re going to walk down that ramp,’ and that’s what they did.

“Everything we set out for these guys to accomplish, they accomplished. They were just one possession away from getting to the state championship with a group nobody gave a shot at all, and that’s because of these seniors. They all made big plays, they all stepped up, they loved each other, they’re good leaders, and they’re great kids. I wish I could just put them in a bottle and keep them with me, but I can’t do that, and I know they’re going to go on to do great things. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for our program.”