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Runnin’ ‘Dogs edged in championship game, 57-49 in OT by Rio Rancho

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For 31 of 32 minutes of regulation basketball Saturday in the City of Champions Classic championship game, it looked as though the Runnin’ ‘Dog basketball team was on its way to a whale of a season-opening effort.

Having dispatched fellow Class 4A squads Deming and Lovington in the opening rounds, the boys in orange were taking it to 5A Rio Rancho in the title tilt. But as missed free throws began to add up for Artesia in the fourth quarter, the Rams were narrowing the gap with unsettling speed.

As the final minute arrived, nerves seemed to get the better of the Bulldogs, and consecutive turnovers allowed Rio Rancho to first pull within a point, then take the lead, 47-46, with 49 seconds on the clock. And after a missed shot in the lane, the ‘Dogs were forced to foul and the Rams made their attempts count, widening their lead to three.

Artesia missed their first attempt at a tie as the seconds continued to tick away, but their second hit home, courtesy of senior Phillip Finley. And as the crowd at Bulldog Pit erupted, the game headed into overtime tied at 49-all.

Unfortunately, that’s where the suspense would end.

The ‘Dogs couldn’t get a single shot to go in overtime, while eight was more than enough for the Rams, who pulled off the 57-49 win after trailing for the vast majority of the afternoon. And while that particular result was a disappointing one for runner-up Artesia, the weekend itself was a resounding success for a squad just kicking off its 2023-24 campaign.

“I’m really pleased with how we got better every single game,” head coach Michael Mondragon said. “I think fatigue definitely played into that last one. We got kind of tired and lost a little bit there in that last game, but we did a good job of just competing and improving.

“I like the way we focused on the things we could control all weekend, and I really liked how we played against Rio Rancho for most of the game. We just didn’t shoot free throws the way we wanted to.”

The Bulldogs were 8-21 from the stripe on the night to the Rams’ 9-18, missing six of those attempts in the fourth quarter alone and two in OT.

Artesia came out strong in the contest, notching its first four points in the paint, courtesy of Rickey Armendariz, and getting a three and a pair of buckets from Diego Wesson in an opening quarter that saw the ‘Dogs jump out to a 16-13 lead.

The Bulldogs used strong defense to hold the Rams to nine points in the second, and while it was a low-scoring period for both squads, Artesia was able to stay in front, 26-22, on four points from the line by Charlie Campbell, a pair of Armendariz layups, and a jumper from Nye Estrada.

A quick pair of baskets in the paint by Wesson to start the second half saw the ‘Dogs sporting their biggest lead of the afternoon, 30-22, but Rio Rancho would reel off six unanswered to pull back within a shot. An offensive putback from Finley and a Clay Kincaid bucket weren’t enough to counter a pair of treys that gave the Rams their first lead, 36-34. But a last-second trifecta from Estrada returned the slim lead to Artesia heading into the fourth, 37-36.

A Finley layup, two consecutive shots off the glass by Armendariz, and an Estrada jumper appeared to give the ‘Dogs the beginnings of the advantage that could’ve seen them through to the end. Up 45-38, the Bulldogs twice went to the line with a chance to make their lead 11 but came up empty.

That left the door open for the Rams to quickly slash their deficit to four with a three from Jerry Archuleta, and following a 1-2 trip to the stripe, three straight baskets — the later two off turnovers — by Rio Rancho gave the back the one-point lead and set up the dramatic final seconds of regulation.

Armendariz finished with 15 points to lead the Bulldogs, followed by Wesson with 11 and Estrada and Finley with seven each. Jayden Johnson led all scorers with 17 for Rio Rancho, folowed by Kevin Archuleta with 15 and Aidan Wood with 10.

The ‘Dogs got their 25th Annual City of Champions Classic run off on a dominant foot Thursday with a 73-23 thumping of Deming.

At a Pit packed full of high school students — and a sprinkling of Central Bullpups — for the 10 a.m. game, the Bulldogs showed off their shooting skills with few signs of rust despite the very recent integration of their football athletes.

Artesia put up 24 points in the first quarter and 23 more in the second to take a commanding 47-11 lead over the Wildcats, then coasted to the 73-23 win, having held Deming to under eight points in all four quarters of play.

Armendariz led the way in that contest as well with 12 points, while Wesson and Campbell added 11 apiece.

That set up a very early District 4-AAAA preview with Lovington in the winners’ bracket semifinal round, and again the Bulldogs used suffocating defensive pressure to limit the ‘Cats to 10 first-half points while forcing a whopping 23 turnovers.

Lovington battled back in the second half, outscoring Artesia 16-9 in the fourth, but the damage had been done as the Runnin’ ‘Dogs capped off a 51-38 win with 12 points from Campbell and 11 from Kincaid.

“It was a good tournament for us,” said Mondragon. “We beat two 4A schools, we improved, and we were really coachable, so if we keep building on those things, we’re going to continue to see good results.”

Named to the All-Tournament Team for the weekend were Estrada, Finley and Armendariz.

“With how deep we are, that could’ve been any one of four or five other guys as well,” Mondragon said. “We’re just pleased with our team. We have a really great team, and it’s hard to single out a few, but those guys had a good tournament.”

The Bulldogs (2-1) got the week to continue to practice and gel as a full squad and will resume their schedule this weekend with a 7 p.m. game Friday against Valencia and a 2:30 p.m. bout Saturday with Valley, both at Bulldog Pit.

“The biggest thing for us is just to keep getting better,” said Mondragon. “To have another four days of practice was good, especially this early in the season, and we’re going to be looking for better offensive execution this weekend. We need to get a lot better at taking care of the ball.

“Defensively, we need to make sure we’re rebounding, which is something we struggled with at times this weekend, so we just want to see growth in the areas we need to get better at. I know our conditioning is going to get better, and past that, it’s just focusing on the things we can control.”

Mondragon also thanked the community and the administration for another successful tournament and a solid start to the basketball season in the City of Champions.

“It was really successful, and we can’t thank the community enough,” said the coach. “All the businesses that provide meals for the teams and hotels, all the community members that help make it possible, whether they donated to the hospitality room or gave up their time to work concession, the gates, scorekeeping… people don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes, and we thank everybody who helped make it a success.

“Everything went really, really smooth, and it definitely made us better. Getting to start off the season with three games at home is great, we had great crowds all weekend, and we’re looking forward to two more big crowds this weekend as we bring in two more big 4A games.”

Brienne Green
Daily Press Editor

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