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It was a frustrating start to say the least for the Bulldog basketball team Thursday and Friday at the Gallup Invitational.

After falling to Miyamura by seven points in the tournament’s opening round after leading 23-21 at the half, the boys in orange watched as another one got away Friday in a 49-47 loss to Grants.

That dropped the ‘Dogs into the seventh-place game Saturday afternoon, where – rather than throw in the towel – they stepped up their game to cap the weekend on a high note, building a sizable lead over Window Rock (Fort Defiance, Ariz.) in the opening half, then fending off a furious charge by the Fighting Scouts in the second half to preserve the 65-59 win.

“I’m really proud of the way our guys got better all weekend,” head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday from the road. “We really focused on improving. We’re still turning the ball over way too much, but the guys know that, and any time you can win on the road against a team that has a big home crowd there, it’s a good day.

“We improved every single day, and we had a lot of kids step up. I thought our seniors really rose to the occasion. Clay Houghtaling had a really good game for us today, and it’s always good to win that last game. Makes the bus ride home a lot better.”

After getting off to a slow start in their first two bouts of the tournament, Artesia came out strong Saturday, taking a quick 12-2 lead over the Scouts on baskets by Houghtaling and Nelson, and three-pointers by the latter and Cody Smith.

Another trey – this time by Johntae Rodriguez – combined with a Houghtaling layup and a trio of free throws sent the ‘Dogs into the second with a commanding advantage, 20-4.

Window Rock was able to improve its offense in the second, but while an increase in turnovers hindered the Bulldogs’ a bit, they were able to keep their lead in double digits throughout, aided by four points apiece from Rodriguez and Houghtaling and a Cord Cox longball.

On top 35-15 going into the third, Artesia expanded their lead even further in the first half of the quarter, with a Nelson three and buckets by Cox and Houghtaling putting them up 42-19.
Window Rock began to hit and hit hard from beyond the arc, however, logging four three-pointers in the third – three off the hand of senior Burk Williams.

Still, the ‘Dogs led by 17 going into the fourth, 54-37. But as the Scouts continued to rain longballs, that advantage quickly dwindled.

Two more treys by Burk and two from Trevor Herbert helped Window Rock come roaring back, and the Fighting Scouts found themselves within striking distance, 62-57, with just under a minute-and-a-half to go in the game.

The boys in orange stayed calm, however, with Houghtaling sinking a pair of free throws at the 49-second mark to make it 64-57. Window Rock missed the front end of a one-and-one but was able to get the ball back on a turnover, generating an offensive putback by Marian Ynzunza with around 10 seconds on the clock.

Artesia was able to take it down to the one-second mark before Nelson was fouled, and the senior converted one of two to round out the final, 65-59.

“It’s really hard on the road when you have guys turning the ball over and things aren’t going your way, but the main thing I love about our guys is we’re resilient,” Mondragon said. “We handle adversity. We were shorthanded, we were sick, hurt, but we just had different guys step up. Everybody did their job. It was next man up all weekend, and we got better and finished out with a nice, strong win.”

Houghtaling led all scorers on the contest with 25 points, followed by Window Rock’s Williams with 23. Nelson had 14 points for Artesia and Rodriguez nine.

“The biggest takeaway from this weekend is just experience,” Mondragon said. “Any time you can play three games on the road, stay in a hotel, handle the travel, and play some really good competition, that experience is invaluable.

“These guys are starting to get some confidence in each other. We shot free throws well all weekend, and we’re getting that game time underneath us that helps us understand what we need to do better so we can focus on that.”

The Bulldogs will spend the next two days trying to overcome the sicknesses and injuries that plagued them in Gallup before heading to Carlsbad Tuesday to take on the Cavemen in a 7 p.m. contest.

“What we need to do right now is get healthy,” said Mondragon. “We have to get these guys some rest. We’ve been going at it hard for two straight weeks now, we’ve been on the road, haven’t been home in almost a month. It’s Carlsbad, so we’re going to be ready for it, but we just want our guys to stay healthy, focus on getting better and learning from our mistakes.

“I’m really proud of this team. The weather made us have to go up on the same day Thursday, so it was six hours and then a game, but the guys never complained. We had guys go down with different injuries, different sicknesses, and guys just stepped up, took it in stride, and got better. We know the most important part of our year is district time, and we took some huge steps this weekend. I’m proud of our guys, and we want to thank all the parents who made the trip up to Gallup and supported them on this great learning weekend.”