(Photo: UNM media guide)
By Tony Russell
For Enchantment Sports
The 1967-68 Lobo basketball team — oh, what might have been.
Was it the best Lobo team ever? It’s certainly one of the best, if not flat-out No. 1.
New Mexico ran off 17 straight victories to start the season.
After winning at Wyoming to clinch the WAC title on March 1, they were 23-2 and ranked No. 7 in the nation. The Lobos lost 70-68 at Denver the next night in their final game of the regular season, but were still heading to the NCAA Tournament and the West Regionals.
They were one of just 16 teams left in the event when they got to the West Regionals — which were on their home floor.
Only 23 teams were invited to the tournament in 1968, and the Lobos had a first-round bye. Thus, they got to play their first game — the very first NCAA Tournament game in the program’s history — in the Pit, which had already become one of the most feared, respected and celebrated venues in the land.
The semifinals of the West Regional featured Santa Clara (21-3) vs. UNM (23-3) and New Mexico State (22-5) vs. UCLA (25-1).
Oh, and some guy in the middle then-named Lew Alcindor.
As expected, if coach Bob King’s Lobos could get by Santa Clara, they would face the Bruins for a spot in the 1968 Final Four.
UCLA beat NMSU in the first semifinal. It was a thriller featured the Lou Henson-led Aggies against the No. 1 team in the nation, coached by the legendary John Wooden. The Aggies put a scare in the Bruins’ quest for another national title before following 58-49.
However, after being ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation and ranked in the top 10 every week since Jan. 1, UNM was severely handicapped. It would not have the services of its phenomenal power forward Greg “Stretch” Howard for the game against Santa Clara. Howard was a junior college transfer, and JC transfers were ineligible for NCAA play.
Without its star player in the lineup, the Lobos were no match for the talented Broncos. Santa Clara was in complete control and defeated UNM 86-73.
Several years later, while working as a sportscaster at KOAT-TV channel 7, I asked coach King if the Lobo could have beaten UCLA, had we had Stretch Howard in the lineup?
His reply was, “Yes. We could have got them had Greg Howard played.”
However, I later asked Norm Ellenberger — King’s longtime assistant who later became UNM head coach — and he disagreed completely when I posed the same question. Using colorful language we can’t print here, he said in one way or another, “Hell no. We would not have been able to slew the mighty dragon which was UCLA – the No. 1 team in college hoop.”
The Lobos made it 0-for-2 in their NCAA Tournament debut. They would lose the consolation game to NMSU the next night, 62-58. UCLA ripped Santa Clara 87-66 and went on to win the national title.
But it was some great great year, and one in this former reporter’s opinion that featured the greatest Lobo basketball team ever.
Along with Stretch Howard, the Lobos employed sharp-shooting guard Ron Nelson, defensive whiz Ron Becker, center Ron Sanford and the hatchet man, Howie Grimes.
The wonderful memories will always remain.
And so will the memory of what might have been.
Tony Russell was an Albuquerque television sportscaster for a combined 13 years at then-KGGM (channel 13) and KOAT. He later owned a trio of pizza parlors, including the popular Tony’s in Downtown Albuquerque.
To contact Tony, please email EnchantmentSportsNM@gmail.com.