PHOTO: New Mexico State’s AJ Harris (No. 12 in dark uniform) played his share of solid defense, but he was unstoppable on offense. He scored a game-high 31 points to lead the Aggies to a 98-94 win against New Mexico on Saturday (Nov. 17) in Albuquerque. (Courtesy/ Lobophotostore.com)
By Mark “Ticky” Smith
Editor in Chief
It was an ol-style Lobo-Aggie basketball game in many ways.
The Lobos wore their turquoise duds, made famous during the “Lobo heyday” and the Norm Ellenberger era.
There were big-time athletes flying all over the floor on both sides. And it was wild.
But the final element that most made it like a blast from the past, was New Mexico State winning 98-94 – holding off an amazing New Mexico comeback – to take its fourth straight in the long-time rivalry.
It’s the first time the Aggies (3-1) have won four straight in the series since sweeping the two games in both the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons.
Coach Paul Weir was on the winning end of the first game in the recent four-game run, then as head coach of the Aggies. But he has been on the losing end as the Lobo coach the past three. UNM (2-1) will try to snap the skid on Dec. 4 in Las Cruces.
This time around, the Aggies were in control throughout and looked like they would turn it into a blowout on a number of occasions. They were the far superior team on the evening.
But hey, it’s Dreamstyle – The Pit. You knew the Lobos would make a run. They finally did, but came up just shy.
Down 75-56 with less than nine minutes left, down 92-79 with less than two minutes remaining and down 93-84 with less than a minute left, the Lobos do what the Lobos typically do in the Pit. And the Pit nearly willed New Mexico to a miracle.
Aided by some Aggie bricks from the foul line in the final minute, some big UNM 3s and some gracious whistles from the officials, the Lobos cut it to 96-94 on a tip-in by senior Anthony Mathis with 14 seconds left, then immediately made a backcourt steal on a double team.
UNM worked the ball to Mathis, but just when it looked like the magic was inevitable, Mathis drove, went down and was called for traveling. The Ags added two free throws with 1.2 left to end it.
Two different styles, and this time it was to the Aggies’ advantage.
The Lobos were the much taller team, but the Aggies – particularly back court mates AJ Harris (31 points) and Terrell Brown (20 points), who were a combined 9-of-11 shooting from 3-point range – were far too quick for UNM all night. They had but a combined three assists, but didn’t need to pass when they got to the hole so easily.
Even when NMSU went into a slow down to try and kill some clock on some possessions, they would still end up with one uncontested layup after another – just blowing by UNM defenders. A handful of missed Aggie layups and missed tip-ins late allowed the Lobos the late chance.
The Lobos had 30 fouls, which was just two more than the Aggies. The difference was, fouling was simply the only way UNM could slow the Aggie guards down. NMSU was 26-of-39 from the line and UNM was 21-of-30.
HEIGHT ADVANTAGE HASN’T BEEN: The Lobos are one of the tallest teams in the nation and had a big height advantage on Saturday. But for the second time in three games, they were outrebounded — this time 31-22.
Height, however, only goes so far. Rebounding is much more about desire and blocking out. The Lobos lacked in both areas.
Like I noted after UNM’s 90-83 win against Iona earlier in the week — a game it was outrebounded in the first half before winning the battle of the boards on the night — new teammates will get a better feel for each other as the season progresses. The Lobos only have four returning players. They will figure each other out in time. In the meantime, they need to be much meaner.
New Mexico looked shell-shocked and timid much of the evening as the Aggies hustled around them and pounded the glass much harder.
COACHES GALORE: One of the benefits of not having a deadline to file a story, and being able to leave after the interview session, is hearing what the “real coaches” have to say about the game on the post-game radio show.
Then again, one of detriments of leaving the Pit shortly after interviews, is allowing myself to listen to the “real coaches” on the post-game show.
The Lobos, you see, are either a Final Four team or the worst group ever assembled in the Mountain West Conference – pending the result of that night’s game.
Since the Lobos lost on Saturday night ….. Well, you tell me.
Has Weir been fired yet? For the purposes of this column, I’m going to assume he hasn’t been fired as of Sunday morning. So maybe he was able to, uh, learn a few things from the experts.
One topic was how fans are annoyed by Weir’s philosophy of bringing in talented transfers. “Why can’t he bring in four-year players, like the old days?
I agree, the Stormin’ Norman teams were defensive monsters and Steve Alford’s Lobos were solid defensively as well. But if you’re talking about the “glory days” of Lobo hoop, that was the Ellenberger’s era – and the full-court pressure and run-and-gun fast-break gang.
During Ellenberger’s second season in 1973-74, the Lobos scored 98 points or more eight times in a nine-game stretch. In 1976-77, they lost 112-103 in overtime to the Aggies and 121-98 at UNLV. The following season they got revenge against Tark and UNLV with a 102-98 win and scored 103 in both back-to-back wins against Arizona and Arizona State.
Funny, what we remember.
And, oh yeah, Ellenberger’s squads were filled with all those four-year Lobo players, right? Remember guys like Michael Cooper, Marvin Johnson, Willie Howard, Russell Saunders, Phil Abney, Will Smiley, Kenny Page, Jerome Henderson, Highway Jefferson, Larry Belin and Andre Logan?
I don’t recall any of them taking Psych 101 at UNM – at least not until after they transferred.
And “Honest” Dave Bliss wouldn’t have dreamed of transfers. Vladimir McCrary, Khari Jaxon, Ike Williams, Lewis LaMar and that ultimate student-athlete Steve Logan didn’t quite have four-year Lobo careers. Overall, however, I’ll admit that Bliss was pretty good at bringing in top-notch freshmen.
Then again, he had a lot more buying power back then.
Should I continue? Do Wayland White, Jamaal Williams, Javin Tindall, Aaron Johnson, J.R. Giddens, Troy DeVries, Alfred Neal and a little used forward named Danny Granger come to mind in the Ritchie McKay era?
Alford did do a good job of bringing in freshman – after they had a year under the belts at the prep school level. And there were transfers as well, like Darrington Hobson, Drew Gordon, Kendall Williams (released by UCLA before his freshman year), Demetrius Walker and who can forget Jarion “Tweety” Henry.
Then there’s the Craig Neal era? Does it matter?
SO, HOW GOOD ARE THE LOBOS?: They are a very talented team, but not quite a good team. Yet.
As I’ve noted, with all the new players, it takes time to mesh. Yes, the Lobos are badly in need of playing with more energy for 40 minutes — not just 2. They need some butt-busting defensive work and desperately need to block out on the boards.
But, there is serious talent out there. Much of it is on one-on-on play right now, but that will improve as well with time together on the floor.
And once again, remember 6-11 Carlton Bragg becomes eligible on Dec. 16.
The guess here? This is going to be an excellent team. I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong if it doesn’t come to fruition by March.
IS WEIR THE ANSWER?: Weir repeatedly took the blame for the loss during post-game interviews and on his post-game radio show. Did he deserve the blame?
Mathis, who had 20 points, shook his head and smiled, “No, not at all.”
Weir, never a guy to make excuses, said, “First, thank you so much to all of the fans (14,393) that came out today. It was an exceptional sign of how far I think we’ve grown and where our program is hopefully headed. Unfortunately, the result is not what we wanted. It’s incredibly disappointing, and inevitably that falls on me.”
While the Lobos didn’t show nearly as much fire as the Aggies, I also saw Weir making adjustments all game long on both defense and offense to try and to turn his team around. Some fans are only too happy to blame a coach. But I heard the same gripes and complaints from fans about Weir’s run-and-gun, full-court style of play last year when the Lobos lost eight of nine in one stretch to stumble to a 3-8 record.
What I saw at that time was a first-year coach implementing a system, and a team getting better each time out. That team won seven straight down the stretch to get to the Mountain West tournament championship game, and came within a few minutes of beating San Diego State for an NCAA berth.
In the future, I expect to see more double-team back-court traps, but they simply wouldn’t have worked consistently against the Aggie guards. That pressure defense will take its toll on many other teams.
By season’s end — actually much sooner — I see no reason the Lobos won’t make similar strides to last season, and I’m confident Weir is the guy to build the program into an MW contender — if not a power.