NCAA hoops: Lobos’ NCAA history rife with stories of infamy
By TIM KORTE
AP Sports Writer
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico has one of the most famous arenas in college basketball and a devoted legion of hoops-crazy fans.
Something the Lobos have never had? Two straight victories in the NCAA tournament.
“Never gotten out of the second round?” Mountain West player of the year Darington Hobson asked.
Going into Thursday’s opener, New Mexico is 6-12 in 11 previous NCAA appearances. The Lobos (29-4) are seeded No. 3 in the East Region against No. 14 Montana (22-9) in San Jose, Calif., and coach Steve Alford said the only game that matters is the next one.
“What we’ve done in the NCAA tournament, whether it be good, bad or indifferent, I don’t think it has any impact on what these guys are going to do,” he said. “I don’t know if any of these guys would even know what teams in the past have done in the NCAA tournament.”
Good thing, because it’s not exactly bragging material.
In the 1974 tournament, the Lobos went 2-1 after winning their opener, losing in the second round at a regional site and then winning the regional consolation game.
Consolations are no longer played, not that it matters now.
“We don’t look at the past too much,” said All-Mountain West point guard Dairese Gary. “We had great teams before us but we’re a new generation, a new time. We just want to focus on the present, try to do what we can do and try to set new records and make new goals.”
It’s not just that the Lobos have never sustained an NCAA run. It’s the way some previous teams have lost that spawned horror stories.
What’s the most infamous example?
Sorry, but it’s difficult to choose just one.
How about the storied 1978 team that included Michael Cooper and held a No. 12 national ranking? After winning the Western Athletic Conference with a 13-1 record, the Lobos — in the days of the first-round bye — played in the NCAAs at nearby Tempe, Ariz.
One win would have returned them to The Pit for the regional semifinals. But Cal State Fullerton spoiled the fiesta with a shocking 90-85 upset.
And check out what happened in 1994. The Lobos won the WAC tournament, earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs and went to Tucson, Ariz., to face No. 12 George Washington.
They were finished before leaving the hotel. On the eve of that game, several players dined on the most notorious snack in New Mexico basketball history — the dreaded chili cheese fries that had them up most of the night and ill the next day. George Washington won 82-68.
The Lobos have also missed opportunities against big-time programs in the NCAA tournament.
In 1996, New Mexico ended a 22-year drought of NCAA wins by beating Kansas State, then faced Georgetown. The Lobos led 35-32 at halftime, but Allen Iverson scored 19 of his 25 points after the break and New Mexico’s Kenny Thomas got into foul trouble as the Hoyas won 73-62.
The next year, the Lobos had a No. 3 seed — highest in school history until this year’s team matched it. After beating Old Dominion in the opener, the Lobos faced Louisville and came within a basket of reaching the Round of 16.
Trailing 64-63, New Mexico forced a turnover with 16 seconds remaining, but Charles Smith — still the school’s career scoring leader — passed up a jumper from the wing and tossed the ball to David Gibson, who missed an off-balance shot at the horn.
After that came second-round losses to Syracuse and Connecticut, which went on to win the 1999 title.
In 2005, the Danny Granger-led Lobos won the Mountain West tournament. But against Villanova in the NCAAs, they shot 18 percent and scored 11 first-half points. New Mexico rallied and got within 52-47 with 29 seconds left before losing 55-47.
This year’s Lobos are eager to write a new chapter.
They’ve punctured many of the old syndromes that plagued New Mexico through the years by notching a school-record 29 wins, including 10 road victories and 12 wins overall away from The Pit while assembling 12- and 15-game winning streaks.
“Why not one more run for this team?” said the only senior, Roman Martinez. “We’re athletic. We’re young and inexperienced, but we have great leadership in Coach Alford. We have the conference MVP and a first-team all-league player. We’re just trying to stretch this thing out.”