On multiple occasions this season, the Runnin’ ‘Dog basketball team has called upon an athlete to drain a big shot and help turn the tables in a tight game. More often than not, they’ve come through.
Every down-to-the-wire contest needs a hero. Friday at a packed Bulldog Pit, Artesia had a whole team of them.
With Goddard leading through the first two quarters of play and bumping the ‘Dogs’ deficit to nine to start the third on consecutive treys by Blake Maxey, something had to give.
The crowd knew it and raised their voices to drown out the Rocket faithful, urging the boys in orange on. And they responded.
With 4:47 to go in the third, Carlos Caldera hit a big three to quickly bring the ‘Dogs back within six. Justin Houghtaling, in his first game back since a Feb. 5 injury against Goddard, powered into the paint for a shot off the glass, then showed his versatility with a trey of his own at the 3:31 mark.
Caldera delivered another bomb just under a minute later to give the Bulldogs their first lead since the early goings, and a free throw by Taylor Null capped off a 12-0 run that put the ‘Dogs up by three, 29-26. Goddard’s LeAnthoney Harrison interrupted the rally with a jumper, but with 26 seconds on the clock, Carlos Carrasco sank Artesia’s fourth longball of the period to send the boys in orange into the fourth with a four-point edge, 32-28.
The fact the Rockets didn’t hit a field goal until just 53 seconds remained in the game would point to a distinct advantage for the ‘Dogs. But Goddard’s Noah Waide proved the power of free throw shooting, going 7-8 from the stripe to keep his team within two, 37-35, despite a trifecta from Ethan
Duff and bucket by Houghtaling. The latter would drive in for a powerful layup and hit the front end of a one-and-one to give the ‘Dogs some breathing room, 40-35, but Waide was on a one-man mission.
The Rocket senior dashed off two layups within 10 seconds after stealing a pass on the press breaker to bring Goddard back within one, 40-39. But Caldera proved himself clutch from all over the court as the final seconds ticked away.
The senior calmly secured both ends of a one-and-one with 24 to go to make it 42- 39, then answered yet another Waide layup with two more from the stripe at the 14-second mark. And with the Bulldogs knowing precisely who was going to get the ball for the Rockets’ final attempt of the night, Waide’s shot was diverted and the 44-41 win preserved.
“This was a big game for us,” Artesia head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday. “I thought we did a good job of just adjusting throughout the whole game, and I really liked how we continued to fight, continued to execute and do the things we needed to do to get the win.
“At any point, we could have easily folded, but our boys did a great job of staying focused and playing as a team, and I really feel like we out-executed them in the last few minutes. I think that was the difference.”
Despite keeping it close in the opening quarters, the Bulldogs were struggling both from the field and on the boards, two factors that prevented them from taking advantage of the Rockets’ own difficulties from the field.
A Houghtaling shot in the paint to start the game and a trio from the line by Caldera – who finished a perfect 7-7 on the night – put the Bulldogs on top early, but nine unanswered from Goddard helped see them to a 12-7 edge going into the second.
There, layups from Duff and Carrasco were sandwiched by Rocket bursts, but a strong offensive putback by Joe Willingham and a free throw apiece from the sophomore and Houghtaling kept Artesia within five at the break, 20-15.
“I really liked the way we adjusted at halftime,” Mondragon said. “In the first half, we really struggled with our rebounding, and we addressed that at halftime. I thought we did a great job in the second half of dominating the boards both offensively and defensively.
“I also thought we did a good job of taking care of the ball for the most part – there was about a minute stretch there in the fourth quarter where they scared everybody, including myself. But they followed the game plan, everybody did their job, and that’s really where we’re at right now – playing good basketball, starting to trust each other, and believing in what we’re doing, and it shows out there. So that’s exciting to see, especially going into the district tournament.”
Caldera tied Waide for top scoring honors on the night with 15, followed by Houghtaling with 13, Duff with seven, and Carrasco with five.
With the win, the Bulldogs improved to 11-12 on the year and, more importantly, 3-3 in District 4-AAAAA play, placing them in a tie for second with Goddard. Artesia will host Lovington at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bulldog Pit in the first round of the district tourney.
“This was a big win for us, because it puts us in a tie for second, and the way the seeding and selection works, we could go ahead of Goddard now if we take care of business,” said Mondragon. “We also want to thank the whole town of Artesia for making Pack the Pit a success.
“Our tailgate was a success, the car raffle, and we couldn’t have done any of it without the great support Artesia gives all its athletic programs, so we want to thank everybody who came out and supported the boys and all the different businesses that donated, the basketball programs, the Sixth-Man Club. Hopefully we’ll see everybody out there again for our last district home game Tuesday.”