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Trailing the host Carlsbad Cavemen by 17 at the half, the Bulldog basketball team could easily have phone it in from there.

The ‘Dogs were worn down, still reeling from a rash of illnesses and injuries that plagued them in Gallup last weekend and continue to persist. But rather than surrender, they fought back.

And it very nearly paid off.

The Artesia boys started by outscoring the Cavemen 20-15 in the third quarter, a vast improvement over their eight- and 11-point showings in the first and second periods respectively.

Following a pair of early free throws by Luke Nelson, Two buckets by Kale Mauritsen and one apiece from Nelson and Cody Smith helped Artesia gain a little ground. And with Johntae Rodriguez closing out the quarter with a pair of three’s – one old-fashioned, one modern – to combine with another Mauritsen jumper and two from the stripe by Clay Houghtaling, the boys in orange had trimmed their deficit to a more-manageable 12 heading into the final eight minutes, 51-39.

There, they quickly made things a lot more interesting.

Anthony Armendariz opened the quarter with an and-one, then – following a Mauritsen trey – took a steal the other way for a layup.

Suddenly, the Bulldogs were within four points of the Cavemen, 51-47, with 5:30 left in the ballgame.

Mauritsen delivered another hard drive to the hoop but was surrounded by five points by Carlsbad, but a shot from beyond the arc by Armendariz reinstated that four-point margin, 56-52.

Unfortunately, however, that’s as far as the comeback effort would go.

Caveman high-point Josh Sillas proceeded to take charge of preserving his team’s victory, single-handedly outscoring the ‘Dogs 13-6 in the final minutes of play. That turned the nailbiter back into a double-digit win for the boys in blue, 71-58.

“I’m really pleased with the way we came back and never quit,” head coach Michael Mondragon said today. “We could easily have gotten beat by 30 point, but we found a way to keep fighting.

“We limited our mistakes, we started doing the things we know we’re good at, and we played Bulldog basketball for two quarters. We just have to find a way to be more consistent with that effort. You can’t spot a team that big of a lead on the road in a rivalry game and expect to just come back at the end.”

The ultimate damage was done early in the game, with Carlsbad outscoring Artesia 21-8 in the first.

By the time the ‘Dogs got on the board with round four minutes left to play in the period, the Cavemen were up by 13. Following Jacob Creighton’s inaugural bucket, Artesia got a free throw from Armendariz, a 10-foot jumper from Josiah Sarinana, and a Smith three, but it barely put a dent in Carlsbad’s opening onslaught.

The Bulldogs did little better from the field in the second. The team got off to a solid start with a pair of free throws and trey by Mauritsen and a Houghtaling basket making it a nine-point game, 24-15, but a 12-4 run from there by the Cavemen gave the home team a significant halftime cushion, 36-19.

Sillas led all scorers on the night for Carlsbad with 35 points, while Mauritsen posted 17 for Artesia, followed by Armendariz and Smith with 10 each.

“The great thing is our effort is there,” Mondragon said. “Our guys are being coachable, they’re working hard, and they’re determined to get better, and that’ll happen. The biggest thing for us right now is just getting healthy.

“We have to get guys healthy and then get them some minutes when they are so that we can gain that experience. We’re going to watch some film, look at the things we’re not doing well and fix them, and look at the things we are doing well and do them over and over in order to develop that consistency in some areas.”

The Artesia boys will have a much-needed three days off before hitting the gym again for their first home outing since Dec. 11. They’ll welcome Los Alamos to Bulldog Pit for a 2:30 p.m. bout Saturday.

“(Los Alamos) is a little down for a 4A school,” said Mondragon. “They’re not as good as they were last year, but we know that doesn’t matter. We just have to worry about us. The biggest thing we need to do is understand that we’ve got to take care of the ball, do a better job on the defensive end, quit fouling and letting teams get to the rim.

“On offense, we need to execute a little better and show more consistency, but the main thing is to just understand we’re a good basketball team, we have great basketball players, and we’re going to be fine. We just have to keep working at getting better.”

Mondragon also thanked the Bulldog fans who made the trek to Carlsbad Tuesday to support the ‘Dogs.

“We’re kind of in a rut right now just because of injuries and sickness and things like that, but we’re getting out of it. We’ve got a lot of guys doing great things, and I’m proud of them. We’re improving, and we’re going to start peaking here pretty quick. I’m just excited about the end result we’re going to get to eventually.”