As I rode with my stepfather down I-25 toward the first installment of the Rio Grande Rivalry for 2011, there was an advertisement on the radio for an upcoming title fight between Albuquerque female boxing champion Holly Holm and European champion Anne-Sophie Mathis. Each fighter would be battling for (cue explosions) World Dominance. It seemed an apt metaphor for the New Mexico - New Mexico State game tonight. I had no idea how true that would be.
A quick summary for the uninitiated: New Mexico and New Mexico State have clashed on the basketball court since the 1920s, and are each other's worst enemy. New Mexico has enjoyed the lion's share of fan popularity, government funding, and everything that comes from being above the Red Line. New Mexico State, on the other hand, have had greater success on the court than their northern brothers, thanks in large part to Hall of Fame coach Lou Henson, who led the Aggies to two Sweet Sixteens in 1968 and 1969 and a Final Four berth in 1970. The Lobos have never advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and the Aggies remind them of it at every available opportunity - but New Mexico has historically bested New Mexico State, leading the overall series 112-94, including the last seven matches. New Mexico fans laud this over their southern brethren constantly - and with both teams dominating their competition thus far this season, it set the stage for the rarest of things in college basketball: a meaningful game in November.
We arrived at University Arena - colloquially known as The Pit for its subterranean seating bowl and basketball court - an hour before tip-off. Even at that early hour, the traffic thickened as we drew closer to our parking area. Ladies and gentlemen, young and old, cherry and crimson were all swarming towards the epicenter of Wednesday night's hostilities. The glasswork and steel girders from The Pit's recent $60 million renovations seemed to glow through the November darkness as we crossed the street, tickets in hand. My pulse quickens. I start to smile in spite of myself. It's gameday - and I'm here. That smile evaporates as I'm handed a pair of promotional LED novelty glasses - I slip them in the inner pocket of my jacket as a form of silent protest against the visual cacophony that 15,000 other people will likely unleash on me over the course of the game.
New Mexico, in addition to this game, are hosting a second-round match in the NCAA College Cup on Sunday evening - and tickets are on sale here, tonight. I decide now is as good a time as any to get tickets for that event - and after fifteen minutes of bobbing and weaving through Lobo and Aggie fans as they mill in the concourse, buying five-dollar slices of pizza and four-dollar soft drinks, I'm the proud owner of a college soccer ticket. Back to my seat, just in time for the two teams to exit the locker room for their final warmups. The Aggies come out first to a chorus of boos and jeers, with New Mexico's Section 26 student section ignoring any pretense of hospitality by chanting "F*** THE AGGIES" repeatedly at the visitors from Las Cruces. The Lobos then took the floor to the strains of their fight song, Hail New Mexico, and the applause of the home faithful. New Mexico fans are full of confidence after beating the brakes off an NAIA team (Davenport University) and two Division II teams (Western New Mexico and former Sun Belt and TMMers New Orleans) - but New Mexico State is a completely different animal. They aren't a typical mid-major team. They have experience - and they have size. Their starting lineup features 6-foot, 11-inch senior bruiser Hamidu Rahman, the post anchor of their offense, and their bench is bolstered by twin 6-foot, 10-inch sophomore enforcers Tshilidzi Nephawe and Renaldo Dixon. They can shoot if need be - they dropped 115 points on Eastern New Mexico in an exhibition game earlier this month - but they can fight as well. The atmosphere would soon demand exactly that.
The starting lineups were introduced: New Mexico State first, with Section 26 asking "WHO'S THAT?" after each player was mentioned, then New Mexico, complete with a video highlight package set to Jay-Z and Kanye West's "N***** in Paris". Once those niceties were taken care of, the teams took the court. The crowd rose to their collective feet. A student in Section 26 holds up a whiteboard towards the Aggie bench with a question and a declaration: "What rivalry? Seven in a row (in reference to New Mexico's current in-state winning streak)." A ringside bell sounds twice. Michael Buffer delivers his trademark catchphrase: Let's get ready to rumble! 2 Unlimited's "Get Ready for This", as it has for every other home game over the past 20 years, blares through the house speakers.
This game has become a prizefight.
The first foul - on New Mexico's Wooden Award candidate and former UCLA Bruin Drew Gordon - comes a mere 17 seconds into the game. There would be twenty-five more called in the first half, including a technical foul on Tshilidzi Nephawe as he tangled with Aussie Cameron Bairstow just before halftime. (This drew chants of "F*** YOU 15" for the rest of the night from Section 26. What New Mexico's student section lacks in tact and creativity, they more than make up for with sheer volume and enthusiasm.) New Mexico came into this game as a team with incredible front-court depth (they had used seven guards in their rotation prior to tonight), but were weak in the post with only three real options available in Gordon, Bairstow and senior A.J. Hardeman. New Mexico State saw this, attacked the inside, and took full advantage of that weakness. The Aggies managed to score on back-door cuts and draw fouls on the Lobos' forwards, placing each option squarely in foul trouble as halftime drew near. The Lobos were desperate enough to bring in freshman guard Dominique Dunning as an emergency post defender - and the results were predictably ineffective. In spite of the Lobo's struggles under the basket, they were able to make use of their traditional strength to keep in the game: perimeter shooting. New Mexico State appeared to be feeling the pressure from the baying home fans of The Pit, as they only made seven field goals in the first half, along with going 10-21 from the free throw line - but the Aggies only trailed 31 to 26 after the first 20 minutes. It could have been much worse, as New Mexico had an eight-point lead late in the half, but the Aggies steeled themselves with three free throws from Hernst Laroche to draw within five at the halftime break.
Wendall McKines, the leader of the Aggie offense since Troy Gillenwater graduated last season, has been made completely ineffective by New Mexico's defense: he goes into the locker room with zero points on 0-7 shooting from the field. They aren't so fortunate in the second half. McKines scores four straight points to open the frame, and the Aggies draw ever closer to 31-29. The Aggies' defense begins to badger New Mexico into turnovers. Where the Lobos had been making perimeter shots before, they now were dribbling to the basket, not passing, throwing haymaker layups which drew neither glass nor iron. Thsilidzi Nephawe drew his fourth foul six minutes into the second half, but Hamidu Rahman stayed steady, keeping the Lobos hopelessly off balance in the interior. McKines continued to step up to keep the Aggies in the game, and Bandja Sy provided points from distance as the Aggies chipped away at the lead - and at the 8:57 mark, McKines scored and was fouled, drawing the Aggies even at 45. He calmly drilled the free throw in the face of Section 26 - and the Aggies had a lead which they would not relinquish for the rest of the night.
Fatigue began to make itself evident for New Mexico as they turned the ball over with wild passes - and when the Lobos started to get foul shot opportunities in the last five minutes of the game, they couldn't convert. New Mexico State, who had been plagued by poor foul shooting for most of the night, would hit their final four of the night to keep the home team at bay...and when Bandja Sy made a scooping layup on transition - and was fouled in doing so - the Aggies' lead stretched to seven with 21.6 seconds left. Lobo fans couldn't leave The Pit quickly enough. Chairbacks were clapped up angrily; men and women in cherry apparel were left slack-jawed, disbelieving in what they were seeing. They'd expected to be the bullies in this matchup as they'd been seven times before - but the final horn sounded. The Red Line Upset was official; the fight was over. New Mexico State had proven that mid-majors aren't all undersized jumpshooters who get by on pluck and endeavor. Sometimes the mid-major can be the aggressor. Sometimes they can impose their will on the big boys. Sometimes they can ensure that it doesn't end in a loss.
NEW MEXICO STATE 62, at NEW MEXICO 53 11/16/2011
NEW MEXICO STATE 2-0 (0-0) -- H. Laroche 1-5 6-10 8; W. McKines 5-14 3-5 14; C. Kabongo 1-6 2-2 4; H. Rahman 1-1 8-16 10; B. Sy 5-8 1-1 12; T. Watson 3-3 1-3 8; D. Mullings 2-4 0-1 4; T. Nephawe 1-2 0-0 2; R. Dixon 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 19-45 21-38 62. NEW MEXICO 1-1 (0-0) -- K. Williams 0-9 4-4 4; T. Snell 5-11 5-5 18; A. Hardeman 1-6 0-2 2; D. Gordon 0-4 2-5 2; P. McDonald 1-5 0-0 3; D. Walker 3-7 1-3 8; C. Bairstow 1-1 3-4 5; J. Fenton 2-5 2-2 7; H. Greenwood 0-1 1-2 1; D. Dunning 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 14-50 18-27 53.
Three-point goals: NMSU 3-10 (W. McKines 1-1; H. Laroche 0-3; T. Watson 1-1; B. Sy 1-3; C. Kabongo 0-1; D. Mullings 0-1), NM 7-19 (P. McDonald 1-4; J. Fenton 1-2; D. Walker 1-2; K. Williams 0-4; T. Snell 3-6; D. Dunning 1-1); Rebounds: NMSU 32 (W. McKines 9), NM 33 (D. Gordon 8); Assists: NMSU 17 (H. Laroche 6), NM 12 (K. Williams 6); Total Fouls -- NMSU 19, NM 28; Fouled Out: NMSU-None; NM-None.