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For three quarters of basketball Saturday in the City of Champions Classic third-place game, the Runnin’ ‘Dogs basketball team gave Class 5A Rio Rancho all it could handle.

Unfortunately, the other quarter ultimately spelled the difference.

Down by just two points at the break, 22-20, the Bulldogs committed a rash of turnovers and posted just four field goals in the third quarter of play, and the Rams took full advantage, rattling off 26 points of their own to take a 48-31 lead into the final eight minutes.

And although the ‘Dogs would outscore Rio Rancho 15-8 in the fourth, the damage had been done in the 56-46 loss. It’s the three positive quarters Artesia will be choosing to focus on as it moves on from the City of Champs, particularly when considering the team was competing in just its third game of the season – and in as many days.

“I’m so proud of our guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday. “The whole weekend, they played hard against three really good teams. They just got after people and showed a lot of consistency for this early in the year.”

The Rams got out to a quick start in Saturday’s contest, scoring six unanswered, and Artesia didn’t post its first field goal until the 5:14 mark via a Tucker Smothermon jumper. That was followed, however, by a trey and a breakaway layup in transition from the junior, a bucket each by Cole Kincaid and Johntae Rodriguez, and a pair from the free-throw line by Clay Houghtaling.

That put Artesia up 13-10 late, but a layup off the turnover and three-pointer at the buzzer put Rio Rancho back in front going into the second, 15-13.

That period would turn out to be a slow one offensively for both squads. The ‘Dogs twice tied things up on a Rodriguez jumper and both ends of a one-and-one from Cord Cox, and Smothermon answered a Rio Rancho trey for a third deadlock with 1:48 to go in the half, 20-20. Rio Rancho’s Miguel Baray was able to get a bucket under the basket in the final seconds, however, to put the Rams up by two at the half.

But when Ram senior Isaiah Chavez kicked off the third with a breakaway layup off the steal, it was a sign of things to come. Rodriguez posted a basket and two from the stripe, but it came amidst nine points by Rio Rancho, and they’d continue to post four and five points to every two from the Bulldogs en route to a 48-31 lead.

Artesia did a solid job of chipping it away in the final quarter, but time wasn’t on their side.

An old-fashioned three-point play from Rodriguez, five points from Cox, and four from Houghtaling would pull the ‘Dogs back within eight, 52-44, but as the contest fell under two minutes, a miss by Artesia was followed by back-to-back baskets from Baray – one off the steal of an inbounds pass under Artesia’s basket – and that would ultimately put things out of reach in the 56-46 loss.

Rodriguez finished with 11 points and Smothermon 10, while Baray led all scorers with 14 for Rio Rancho. Houghtaling was named to the All-Tournament Team for the Bulldogs.

The Artesia boys shot 37 percent from the field to the Rams’ 41 but were better at the line, 71 percent to 50. The ‘Dogs also, however, committed 27 turnovers on the contest.

“The effort’s there, we just have to fix our turnovers,” Mondragon said. “Obviously the turnovers really hurt us tonight, but that’s something we can fix. We didn’t lose to any pushover teams this weekend. The boys are playing hard, they’re being coachable, and they just play with so much passion.

“Now we just have to work on making better decisions with the ball, and that comes with experience. All of that is correctable, and it’ll come with getting back to the basics in practice, so we’re looking forward to a good week of that.”

The boys in orange had a much rougher evening from the field Friday in their winners’ bracket semifinal game against Carlsbad.

The early start to the Eddy County War series wasn’t a pleasant one for the ‘Dogs in the first quarter of play, as the Cavemen bounded out to a 17-4 lead, with a Houghtaling trey at the 55-second mark pulling Artesia within 10 heading into the second, 17-7.

The boys in orange were able to match Carlsbad point for point in that quarter, with Rodriguez and Smothermon both posting six points to help the ‘Dogs maintain that manageable 10-point margin at the break, 35-25.

But the Bulldogs missed out on a golden opportunity in the third period. Successfully using their suffocating defense to limit the Cavemen to just two points – both from the free-throw line – in the quarter, Artesia managed just five of their own, two baskets by Rodriguez and a Smothermon free throw coming amidst 10 misses from the field.

That made it a seven-point game going into the fourth, 37-30, but while Carlsbad’s scoring remained low in the final eight minutes, the ‘Dogs’ was lower still. Artesia posted just a pair of field goals – a Houghtaling three and a bucket by Braxton McDonald – in the fourth for a six-point finish and a 47-36 loss.

Rodriguez had 10 points for Artesia and Smothermon nine, while Carlsbad’s Josh Sillas led all scorers with 20.

The Bulldogs (1-2) will now have five days to prepare for a weekend home stand that begins Friday with a 7 p.m. game against Valencia, followed by a 2:30 p.m. bout Saturday with Del Norte.

“They’re both really good 4A teams,” said Mondragon. “They’re definitely upper end 4A, they’ve got some good guards, good scorers, so we’re going to have to make sure we limit their touches and play good defense. But right now, we’re really just focusing on us and taking care of the basics, playing great defense, and taking care of the ball. If we do all that, we’ll be fine.”

Overall, the ‘Dogs’ opening weekend was a success in terms of the invaluable experience gained, and Mondragon and his staff are looking forward to continued improvement.

“It was a great, great tournament,” said the coach. “We want to thank all our sponsors, the Moose Lodge, Lodgers’ Tax, and the whole community of Artesia, everybody who came out and supported us. We definitely …

got better from Thursday to now, and it’s a process. It’s a journey, and we have to get better every single game. If we do that, the wins will come.

“We had a great hospitality room thanks to all the parents and everybody who donated to that, and it was just a successful weekend.

It’s really fun bringing this caliber of teams into Artesia, and we thank everybody who supported our teams and the whole tournament.”