Featured photo by Jessie Rogers
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Talk about coming full circle!
In March 2005, coach Ritchie McKay and the New Mexico Lobos left Nashville, Tenn., wondering “what if?”
There would be no Music City Miracle for UNM. There would be no second round in the NCAA Tournament.
And, as always, there would be no Sweet 16 for a program that has still never been to one.
(Yes, I know all too well about 1968 and 1974 – but those Lobo seasons were far from Sweet in the Big Dance.)
The 2004-05 Lobo team did have a heckuva sweet season before that sour ending against Villanova in Nashville in the NCAA Tournament. Danny Granger-led UNM, the Mountain West Conference tournament champions at 26-6 but just a 12 seed, lost to fifth-seeded Villanova 55-47 in the first round of the NCAAs.
“I loved that team – Danny, David Chiotti, Alfred Neal, Troy DeVries, Mark Walters – there was a lot I learned that season, and from that loss to Villanova,” McKay told Enchantment Sports on Monday. “I probably just coached them in a way to get to the NCAA Tournament; that was the goal all season. It was a season-long thing.
“But in hindsight, there were probably things I could have done differently, as far as practice times and other things, to get further.
“But Villanova was a heckuva team.”
The Lobos looked shell-shocked the entire first half, and went to the locker room down a whopping 34-11.
The Wildcats still led 42-23 with less than nine minutes left when, behind relentless pressure-defense, the Lobos cut it to 52-47 and had an open 3-pointer from Walters with less than 30 seconds left.
But it didn’t fall and the Wildcats escaped, getting four big free throws and a steal in the final seconds.
Villanova ended the year 24-8, losing to eventual national champion North Carolina in the Sweet 16.
Ah, Nashville. What might have been.
Just two years removed from that season, McKay – who had to rebuild the program from scratch after fired coach Fran Fraschilla dismantled it in his three years at the helm – was fired himself.
And McKay hadn’t been back to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach since.
Until this week.
On Sunday, McKay’s Liberty Flames came from behind to take a thrilling 74-68 victory over Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament championship game.
At Lipscomb. In Nashville.
“We had played in Nashville before, and I’ve been there a few times since (2005),” McKay said. “I didn’t really think about it a lot before the game, but it really was nice to leave there with the win.
“It wasn’t on the same (Gaylord Entertainment Center) floor as 2005, but I have even been back on that one as well over the years.
McKay paused, then added, “When I was back at Gaylord, that really did bring back memories of the NCAA game.”
On Sunday, Liberty (28-6) trailed nearly the entire first half against Lipscomb (25-7) before closing the period on a 9-0 run for a 29-28 lead. The second half was wild, physical and tense in front of a crazed school-record crowd of 5,687 and a national TV audience on ESPN.
It was everything that March Madness should be.
The Flames took the lead for good in the final minute. It was their second win of the season at Lipscomb, which was the ASUN’s top seed.
Lipscomb, which tied Liberty for first place at 14-2 in the regular season, also won at Liberty this year. The Bisons are still hoping for an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, but that is unlikely.
This is McKay’s fourth season as Liberty head coach this go-around. He came within an eyelash of getting back to the NCAAs last year, but Liberty lost to Radford on a last-second 3-pointer from nearly 30 feet in the title game of the Big South tournament.
This season, the Flames weren’t about to get burned in the title game of their new league.
“It’s a special group, from the seniors to the freshman. They have all bought-in, stuck to the system and are all in it for the team.
“I stuck to the system. Earlier (in his career), I changed during games to win a game. But this year, the system didn’t change. We committed to man-to-man defense all season, and it was all worth while. I am really blessed with this group, and they have handled all of it with total class.”
After his ouster at UNM, McKay, who turns 54 next month, was head coach at Liberty for two seasons, going 39-28. He then became associate head coach under longtime friend Tony Bennett at powerhouse Virginia.
After six hugely-successful seasons with Bennett, McKay got the head coaching gig again at Liberty in the 2015-16 season. The Flames were 48-83 in the four seasons before McKay’s return.
Hired in the dark
McKay was hired at UNM in 2002 by former athletic director Rudy Davalos to replace Fraschilla, who was fired despite going 55-41 in three seasons with the Lobos and getting to the NIT all three seasons. But there was so much player dissension and turmoil, and Fraschilla and the program caused numerous embarrassments on and off the court.
Davalos was looking for someone to win, but to also restore the program’s image. But McKay, had coached two seasons each at Portland State, Colorado State and Oregon State, wasn’t on any reporters’ radar when names were being tossed around like dough at a pizza parlor in March of 2002 as to possible replacements.
In fact, both local and national reports had Hobbs native and then-Arizona State coach Rob Evans being offered the job one evening. But very late that night, UNM hastily schedule a teleconference – with Davalos and McKay on the phone from the Final Four in Atlanta – to announce the new coach.
The next morning – before social media fan sites and local media became PR outlets for the Lobos and their coaches – fans went to bed thinking ‘Rob Evans’ would be the man. They woke up with the surprise of McKay getting the nod.
It was a terrible way to announce McKay, who never seemed to get a fair shake from the fans or the Albuquerque media – who in those days had heated battles for any news, good or bad (more of the latter), about the program.
Yes, guilty as charged.
McKay rebuilt the program, but outside of the NCAA Tournament season, the fan base never returned to what it once had been around Loboville.
Then late in the 2006-07 season – one filled with boisterous banter by Lobo transfers J.R. Giddens and Aaron Johnson that led to one of the most dysfunctional campaigns in school history – first-year UNM athletic director Paul Krebs fired McKay.
The coach not only held his head high or never complained, and even joined Krebs at the news conference announcing his dismissal. McKay even finished the final weeks of that trying season as head coach.
To this day, I have never heard McKay utter a bad word about the way he was ousted or about the program – one his late father, Joe McKay, played for in the early 1960s.
Nothing changed this week.
“I’ve always been a Lobo fan and always rooted for the Lobos,” said McKay, who had his father’s letter jacket proudly displayed in his UNM office. “That was my dad’s alma mater. There’s never been hard feelings. It was just time to move on.”
A big irony of McKay moving on to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005, is the fact that his replacement at UNM – Steve Alford – isn’t in the field.
Or even coaching.
Alford was fired prior to Pac-12 conference play this season at UCLA, his sixth straight underachieving campaign at UCLA.
Alford’s final game with UCLA came at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 29 against Liberty. McKay’s Flames ripped Alford’s Bruins 73-58.
Did McKay take satisfaction in beating Alford?
“Not at all,” McKay said. “I’ve never rooted against him. We are friends; we have been a long time. I really like Steve and he will be back in coaching with the best of the best.
“It’s just really hard to win at Pauley, and that was the only focus for me that day.”
McKay’s focus is on a much larger game now. But he won’t find out who that game will be against until Sunday, when the NCAA Tournament field is announced. Don’t be surprised if the Flames get a 12th seed and play a No. 5 seed – just as the Lobos did in 2005 against Villanova.
The Flames, meanwhile, get a couple of days off for spring break before returning to practice on Wednesday. That also gives McKay a couple of days to get a little rest — in between a lot of interviews — and to spend some quality time with his wife, Julie (formerly Summers), and their children, Ellie (24), Luke (19) and Gabriel (17).
Ellie is a Liberty graduate and works for the “Tonight Show,” Luke is a Liberty student and a team manager with the Flames and Gabriel is a high school senior.
“We’re really loving it out here,” said Ritchie, who has long been a devout Christian. “It’s a great fit for me; for us. We’ve been out here 12 years, living within an hour of the schools.
“Everything is really good. I’m just really happy out here.”
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He covered the Lobo basketball beat for 15 seasons for the Albuquerque Journal, which included all five of McKay’s years. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.