The Bulldog basketball team likely spent the first quarter of their Saturday afternoon wondering if they’d gotten off the bus at the wrong gym.
In Los Alamos for a weekendending bout against the 1-11 Hilltoppers, the ‘Dogs weren’t seeing any signs of a team that picked up its one-and-only win Dec. 26 over Class 1A Fort Sumner. The ‘Toppers were raining three’s, and the boys in orange were on their heels, heading onto the court for the start of the second quarter trailing by nine, 20-11.
It just goes to show that no opponent can be underestimated in the world of high school basketball, and the Bulldogs eventually righted the ship, outscoring Los Alamos 22-8 in the second and 14-11 in the third to see themselves to a 66- 57 win that – following a 62-49 victory over Pojoaque Friday – improves their record to 9-6 on the year.
“I’m proud of our guys,” head coach Michael Mondragon said Saturday from the road. “Any time you can win on the road, it’s a good thing, and we definitely got better this weekend. We obviously didn’t play our best basketball. We made some mistakes, but the best thing is that we handled adversity in both games and found ways to make enough plays to win.
“Even if they’re ugly wins sometimes, they’re still wins, and although we know we have to get better, we’re proud of the way our guys competed, played hard, and really tried to do what their coaches asked.”
The Hilltoppers were feeling comfortable on their home court to start Saturday’s contest, sinking four three-pointers in the opening eight minutes and adding four more from the field to throw the ‘Dogs off their rhythm. Artesia trailed 20-8 until the buzzer, when Johntae Rodriguez got in on the perimeter game with a trey to make it 20-11.
It looked as though it would be more of the same in the second when Los Alamos’ Matthew Owen kicked off the period with yet another from beyond the arc, but Rodriguez had had his fill, answering with three of his own and a layup to single-handedly bring the Bulldogs back within striking distance, 25-22.
A free-throw-line jumper from Clay Houghtaling and a Tucker Smothermon trey gave the boys in orange their first lead of the day, 29-28, with 2:30 to go in the half, and Artesia would close out with another Smothermon basket and a jumper from Jacob Creighton to go on top 33-28 at the break.
The ‘Dogs weren’t able to widen the gap as much as they would’ve liked in the third, starting out well with a bucket, a three, and a pair from the freethrow line by Smothermon, a Creighton offensive board, and a Rodriguez free throw to go up by 11, 43-32. But Los Alamos would outscore Artesia 7-4 from there to trail by eight, 47-39, heading into the fourth.
There, turnovers continued to hinder Artesia’s offensive progress – they’d commit 12 in the second half – but early baskets from Smothermon, Rodriguez and Houghtaling helped keep them in the driver’s seat, 53-46.
The ‘Toppers were able to cut that advantage to four, 56- 52, with around three minutes to go on a Harrison Frank andone, but a shot off the glass and a free throw from Cord Cox and a Braxton McDonald bucket helped restore some breathing room, 61-53.
Los Alamos was able to stay within six until the final minute as misses and turnovers kept the Bulldogs scoreless, but an oldfashioned three-point play from McDonald with 15 seconds on the clock sealed the deal, 66-57.
Rodriguez finished with 19 points to lead all scorers on the day, followed by Smothermon with 16, and Owen had 17 for Los Alamos.
The Bulldogs got off to a bit of a slow offensive start Friday as well against Pojoaque Valley but were able to use solid defense in the first quarter to limit the Elks to seven points, six of those coming from the charity stripe.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, kicked off that contest with a trey, and with help from a pair of Smothermon baskets, Artesia took a 13-7 edge into the second.
There, however, turnovers and loose D helped see Pojoaque to a 16-point rally, with the Elks scoring in bursts between the Bulldogs’ field goals to pull several times within a shot and, with 34 seconds remaining in the half, within one point, 24-23. Four free throws and a breakaway layup off the steal comprised Pojoaque’s 6-0 quarter-ending run, and they’d take that one-point deficit in at the break.
The Elks were able to match the ‘Dogs blow for blow in the third, spreading their scoring around while Rodriguez did the bulk of Artesia’s, taking 10 points out of the period.
But with the boys in orange once again up by just one, 40- 39, heading into the fourth, the Bulldogs were able to regain their rhythm, holding Pojoaque to just a pair of field goals in the final eight minutes while putting up 22 points of their own to turn the nail-biter into a 62-49 win.
Rodriguez finished with 23 points on that outing and Smothermon 15, with Dante Ortiz and Sean Aragon also logging 15 for the Elks.
“At times this weekend, our defense looked really good, and at other times, it looked really bad, so we really have to focus better on our matchups, not allowing penetration, and making sure we have the help side,” Mondragon said. “We also have to eliminate some of these turnovers. Just like with the defense, sometimes we make great decisions with the ball and sometimes we don’t.
“But the best thing about this whole process is that we know these are things we can fix. We’re going to fix them with practice and time, focus in on fine-tuning the details, and continue to get better. Despite the issues, we’re beating 4A teams right now, and that’s what we want to do because it’s just going to help us moving forward.”
The ‘Dogs will have yet another shot at a same-class opponent Tuesday when they make a brief stop back at Bulldog Pit for a 5:30 p.m. game against Chaparral before hitting the road again for a Friday rematch with Carlsbad and a Saturday trip to Santa Teresa. Those two contests will mark the start of a four-game road trip that won’t see Artesia at the Pit again until Feb. 4 for their District 4-AAAA opener against Lovington.
“We’ve got three more games this week, three more opportunities to get better, so we’re just going to watch some film this week, learn from the mistakes we made this weekend, and continue to improve,” said Mondragon. “We’re going to focus on all the fundamental things that are going to give us the chance to be successful in March.
“We just want to thank everybody who came up and supported us this weekend. We had a great crowd, and we’re really proud of our guys and the grit and toughness they’re showing right now, being able to handle adversity and not give up. We easily could’ve done that in both games this weekend, but we kept fighting and found ways to win.