It was the first thing I saw when I took my seat 45 minutes prior to the tipoff of this year's installment of the Mountain West / Missouri Valley Challenge between New Mexico and Missouri State: a brilliant hand-lettered sign, professionally prepared, held by a gentleman seated behind the visitor's bench at The Pit. Next to him were two children - presumably his grandchildren - who were standing guard over a stack of similar cards: heralds for Jarmer Gulley ("It's Gonna Be a Gulley Washer"), Isaiah Rhine ("You Can't Cross the Rhine"), Kyle Weems...even former Southwest Missouri State head coach Steve Alford, now the head man at New Mexico.
As the visiting Bears stretched and prepared to take on the Lobos, this superfamily of Missouri State fans revealed placard after placard directed towards their heroes - a beautiful gesture, and one which rarely occurs at New Mexico. With the Mountain West's departure from the ESPN family of networks, the raison d'être of most fans' signage left with it: getting on television simply by turning ESPN into an inane acrostic. Getting on the Mountain West Sports Television Network in front of an audience of thousands (maybe) is less noteworthy than getting on ESPN's Big Monday, Super Tuesday, or any other number of basketball showcases. Fans of New Mexico's women's team still create signs focused on individual players - but even in a basketball-crazed environment like Albuquerque, the art of the fan sign has devolved.
One only needs to look to the right of the Missouri State faithful to see it: the New Mexico student section, carrying the ubiquitous tool of today's fan groups: the whiteboard. The student in charge of the dry erase board tonight soon focuses on the Missouri State superfamily as his target of ridicule - by writing nearly illegible messages on his slab with dried-out markers. "Weems is a weenie"..."You wish you had Alford"...and the hits just kept on coming. It was evident to this New Mexico fan that Missouri State had us licked when it came to signage. The final blow for Missouri State came when Steve Alford took the floor with his Lobos for final warmups, and the signmaster held up a two-sided wonder: "Alford Fan 364 Days a Year" / "This Ain't One of Them". Please, Hammer, don't hurt 'em. Enough!
The Missouri State sign catalogue even included a Lobo-centric sign, made with Lobo script fonts and everything: it read "Lobo Basketball: You Can't Alford to Miss It!" Truly glorious...a Missouri State fan, maybe only passing through Albuquerque for this single game, was able to show more pride in our team than the grand majority of our fanbase.
If only games were won by signs.
After team introductions and national anthems were taken care of, the majority of the still-arriving 14,000-plus crowd took to their feet, clapping rhythmically as 2 Unlimited played on the house speakers - and the ball was tipped...possession New Mexico. The fans, per New Mexico tradition, remain on their feet, clapping during game action. They do this at the beginning of each half (and overtime, should game conditions warrant) until each team scores. Most games the tradition is observed and finished in one or two minutes - not today.
The Lobos took the ball up the court, finding their current offensive anchor, sophomore guard Tony Snell. He sized up a superhoop - and nailed it, seemingly without effort. Fifteen seconds in, 3-0 New Mexico. At the 18-minute mark, another long-distance dagger from Snell...6-0. A New Mexico steal...8-0. Missouri State took a timeout to staunch the hemorrhaging of points - it did little good. Another Lobo steal coming out of the timeout lead to a 10-0 game-opening run, and while Caleb Patterson was able to put the Bears on the board - along with Lobo fans back into their seats - at the 16-minute mark, New Mexico continued to pour on points from distance: seven of their first nine three-point attempts were successful superhoops.
New Mexico's lead grew to 20-4, and Section 26's whiteboard demanded an answer from Missouri State's small collection of fans seated behind their team's bench: "Wish you had Alford?" Whether they did or not, it's doubtful that any coach could bring the Bears out of their offensive woes and cool down the blistering pace of the home Lobos. 20-4 became 23-4....and after MoState finally hit a few jumpers to keep up with their Mountain West challengers, the score was 27-9. Section 26's whiteboard: "Where are your signs?" Because Missouri State's fans weren't there to mug for cameras or block their fellow fans' views, the signs were retired for the half. New Mexico managed to balloon their lead to 33-9 at one point in the first half, but Missouri State finally gained a measure of composure and fought back to make the halftime scoreline 39-23.
The Bears would maintain a brave front in the second half, drawing within twelve at 43-31 on an Anthony Downing jumper. However, the referees decided at that point that they needed to put their own knowledge of sign language on display: the game became bogged down into a eight-versus-five battle, with New Mexico pulling away on the strength of sixteen made free throws (against only three for MoState). A series of free throws from New Mexico produced the final margin: 76-60 in favor of the Mountain West side of the MWC/MVC Challenge. Missouri State couldn't leave with the win - but they won the battle for hearts and minds. New Mexico's student provocateur was rewarded by Missouri State's signmaster with his "Lobo Basketball: You Can't Alford to Miss It!" sign - and the Lobo post-game call-in show regulars were highly complimentary of Missouri State's classy fanbase.