Wednesday night brought the last of New Mexico State's annual home-and-home rivalry games against New Mexico and UTEP. The Aggies beat New Mexico in Albuquerque what seems like a lifetime ago (actually November 16), ending long University Arena (commonly known as the Pit) home win streaks of non-conference home games and games against NMSU. In that game, the Aggies played a stifling defense, only allowing the Lobos 28% shooting. Since the victory in Albuquerque, the Aggies' record is 6-4, losing to Southern Mississippi twice (once in the Great Alaska Shootout, once at Hattiesburg), to Arizona, and at UTEP. The Aggies opened at home against UTEP and got two wins in Alaska, over Central Michigan and San Francisco. The New Mexico game is the fourth of the current home string, the prior three being wins over Western New Mexico, Southern, and McNeese State.
The Lobos are 9-1 in their 10 games building toward the rematch. After a win at Arizona State, New Mexico lost in overtime to Santa Clara in the first round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim. Since then, the Lobos have won eight straight, with neutral-court wins over Washington State, Boston College, and Oklahoma State, a road win at Southern California, and home wins over Idaho State, Missouri State, Montana State, and Missouri-Kansas City. Leading up to the Wednesday game, Lobo coach Steve Alford quietly, but firmly, made revenge of the Aggie win in the Pit a team focus.
Anticipation was high in the sold-out Pan American Center, with attendance about 8,300. NMSU has blocked out around 5,000 seats in the upper four corners of the arena, hoping to create both greater crowd density near the floor and additional demand for the fewer seats available. Doing this has been very successful at Western Kentucky, which actually removed upper deck seats and replaced them with skyboxes. NMSU's successful concert promotions successfully use all 12,500 seats, so removing them was not an option. So far, the seat removal experiment seems to be working, concentrating those in attendance closer to the action.
Besides enthusiastic crowds and a consistently great pep band (the Roadrunner Revue), New Mexico State brought back, for the first time in a number of years, the hanging of the opposing mascot from the arena rafters. In this case, a piñata of Louie the Lobo was raised up near the roof. In the early 90's, this became a staple of the Aggies' games in the Big West. Its discontinuation was a source of discontent among local fans, who have clamored for its reinstatement.
The game started with each team scoring on its first two possessions, although offensive rebounds were needed by both teams (two for the Aggies, one for the Lobos). The first six minutes, with both teams playing zone defenses, were evenly matched. After the game was tied at nine, the Lobos went on an extended run, powered by eight first-half #superhoops, and the complete absence of an Aggie perimeter game, either offensively or defensively. The senior leaders on the front line, forward Wendell McKines and center Hamidu Rahman, scored 19 of the Aggies' 25 first-half points, and the Lobos led by 21 at the intermission.
Halftime was a welcome break. The winner of a raffled vintage Harley Davidson was Joe Montoya, and at least two Joe Montoyas came forward to claim the prize. That was sorted out during a pee-wee basketball game.
The second half was very even, with the Aggies continuing to go inside for scoring, getting to the free-throw line a lot (they lead the country in free-throw rate), and making some of them. Lobo (and UCLA transfer) Drew Gordon had a spectacular game, scoring 23 points, including 15 in the second half, grabbing 19 rebounds, and signaling clearly to the Aggies that their last rally was over with a huge #omgdunx. Lobo guards also had great games, led by Tony Snell's five #superhoops and nine free throws without a miss. Although the statistics were quite even -- with the Aggies winning the boards by four and only having two more turnovers than the Lobos -- the game was never close after being tied at nine.
Other than McKines' 25 points and 15 boards, and Rahman's 19 and 6, the Aggies were outplayed at both ends of the floor. There was no semblance of a set offense, and only eight assisted baskets in the game; contrasting that to the Lobos' 19 assists tells the game story. None of the defenses attempted by the Aggies had any effect, as the Lobos jump shot successfully over zones, went inside through the man, and cashed a few transition baskets off of the Aggie press. The Lobos won by 20, 89-69. By making a few of their missed layups or cashing in on a few of the missed showboating opportunities, UNM would have broken the record for the largest victory over the Aggies in Las Cruces, 25 points, set in 1965.
During the 10 games since the November loss to the Aggies, the Lobos have markedly improved and should start getting national attention as their stellar record warrants; beating Saint Louis on Saturday in the Pit would boost their credibility.
Before the season, splitting the rivalry games would have seemed a great improvement, since NMSU was swept by both UNM and UTEP last season. But their 4-0 start raised expectations significantly. The Aggies seem to have regressed significantly since the first meeting between these teams, and they were soundly beaten on their home floor. Unless they can find a way to play together against good, well-coached teams, their talent, arguably the best in the WAC, will go for naught. They do not have long to figure it out, as there are only two non-conference games remaining before the conference season starts.