The New Year brings new hope, new resolutions, and normally it brings a new season: the conference season. However, in the downsized Mountain West, where Utah left to climb farther away from the Red Line to the Pacific-12 and Brigham Young chased the possibility of BCS football dollars to go independent -- joining the Other 24 in all other sports in the West Coast Conference -- conference play would have to wait for one more week.
With only eight teams in the Mountain West, New Mexico had to find a way to occupy the two games they normally would have against BYU, but most other conferences have other concerns: themselves. Schools who haven't opened conference play, as a result, have a small pool of teams to choose from for these holes in their schedules: they can schedule Division II or NAIA schools, Division I independents...or they can approach the widespread collective of Division I basketball schools in the Great West Conference.
New Mexico, desperate to fill in the blanks in their January itinerary, would bring in Houston Baptist from the Great West to open their account in 2012. The Huskies, after four years of transitioning into the NCAA, are now full members in Division I for the first time since 1990 -- but the road back to Division I has been rough, with Ron Cottrell's men finishing below .500 each of those four years. They came into Albuquerque at 4-8, but after their 5-26 finish in 2010-11, Houston Baptist had already shown improvement. The Huskies and Lobos shared a common opponent -- the Broncos of Santa Clara. New Mexico lost against Santa Clara in the opening round of the 76 Classic in Anaheim; Houston Baptist beat the Broncos at home 72-71. If sports were played on paper, the transitive property would be Houston Baptist's greatest ally. Unfortunately for the Huskies, Our Game is rarely so simple. It's a cold calculus, consisting of ones, twos and threes - and New Mexico were set to stack those numbers up in bunches, coming in on a 10-game winning streak.
After attending my last two New Mexico games alone, I would tag along with my stepfather on this outing, and we carpooled down Interstate 25, arriving half an hour before tip-off. As we pulled into the football stadium's parking lot across the street from The Pit, a local talk radio host was talking about Houston Baptist's schedule, complaining that they'd lost to "Doo-kenss". It took a few seconds for me to realize he was referring to Duquense. Oh, dear. On that note of whimsy, we made our way into The Pit, navigating an extremely light crowd by New Mexico standards. The final attendance was announced at over 12,000 fans; the large swatches of empty benches and chairbacks at tip-off pointed to a figure well under that. Even in front of the smallest crowd of the season, the fans who resolved to cheer their home Lobos did so -- and as Houston Baptist took the floor for their final warmups, a few fans even took it upon themselves to boo and jeer the visiting Huskies. I don't believe it was done with any real malice -- not like when Brigham Young or New Mexico State visit The Pit -- but it was still mildly embarrassing that anyone would think it necessary to welcome Houston Baptist in such a manner. Ah, life above the Red Line.
New Mexico won the tip, with A.J. Hardeman out-jumping Houston Baptist's husky center Joe Latas, and Tony Snell, normally a long-range shooter, drove the baseline for the game's first two points. Houston Baptist, game to the task, immediately responded with a runner from Albuquerque-born (and military-bred) Tyler Russell, evening the score at 2-2. New Mexico worked the post with former UCLA Bruin Drew Gordon...4-2 Lobos. Tyler Russell took a pass in to the baseline -- tied at 4-4. Maybe the transitive property would find a way in this unlikeliest of locales...and then Hugh Greenwood hit a three-point bomb. 7-4 New Mexico. Houston Baptist missed a three of their own, and New Mexico ran the court with three quick passes. 9-4 New Mexico. Tyler Russell took another three and missed, which led to another New Mexico possession. A simple pick-and-roll to A.J. Hardeman in the lane led to an emphatic slam dunk - 11-4 New Mexico, timeout Houston Baptist.
In sixty seconds, Houston Baptist's chances to make history, minute as they were, were snuffed out. Even though they would deliver some exciting moments, including a beautiful alley-oop midway through the first half, the Huskies -- not an outfit known for their defensive prowess (they had allowed 85 points per game on average before tonight) -- were powerless to stop the home Lobos in the first half. New Mexico shot a blistering 70 percent from the field and made five three-pointers in the opening frame. Houston Baptist pressed forward, and were able to trouble New Mexico's guards with pressure defense on occasion, but the game was settled by halftime, with the Lobos taking a 53-29 advantage into the locker room.
My stepfather had passes to the suite level of The Pit, and he invited me to join him for a nickel tour of the posh upper reaches of University Arena as halftime approached. Seeing how there was no halftime entertainment planned for this game, I took him up on the offer. As I was fitted with a paper bracelet and granted entrance into the suite level, it was as stark a reminder as there could be that New Mexico is above the Red Line: flat-screen televisions lined the walls, tuned to ESPN or Mountain West programming, and leather easy chairs with Lobo monograms were available for use in foyers. As we traversed the hallway to the company suite where my stepfather was visiting, it felt less like being in a basketball arena and more like...an office. We finally arrived at our destination a few minutes before the second half: a suite filled with people who were more interested in small talk and cheese trays than basketball. As my stepfather chatted with his community constituents, I looked down on Bob King Court as the second half began, separated from the action below. I clapped my hands until both teams scored, as is the tradition at New Mexico: I was alone in doing so in the suites. If this is the price of luxury, give me a Coke and a hot dog, and park me in the general admission stands.
My stepfather and I left the suites to return to the masses, and we finally found our seats with 16 minutes remaining. By this point, New Mexico was already letting their foot off the Huskies, choosing to give their bench players experience rather than running up the score on Houston Baptist. Even so, the Huskies couldn't stop the Lobos, and New Mexico would ride their scorching field-goal percentage to its inevitable result. With under two minutes remaining, the Lobos put their walk-on guard Chris Perez into the game, garnering the most enthusiastic cheers of the night from a crowd which had mostly left after the eight-minute media timeout. He made one of two free throws, producing the final margin of victory: 37 points. New Mexico had filled in a blank in their schedule with a well-meaning, but ultimately over-matched opponent in Houston Baptist. Good night, drive home safely.
Schools playing in a conference above the Red Line aren't the only ones left scrambling to fill in the blanks, of course. The Great West Conference has been a sanctuary for independents and transitionary teams since they expanded from a football-only FCS conference to an all-sports conference in 2008. A very small sanctuary. The Great West has six schools in the 2011-12 season, but North Dakota will become a member of the Big Sky Conference in 2012-13, and Houston Baptist has accepted an invitation to move to the Southland Conference in 2013-14. The future of the Great West isn't clear, but what once was a league that could have eventually secured an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament will soon be nothing more than a collection of former -- and likely future -- Division I independents. One can only hope the Great West Conference can someday fill their own blanks instead of serving as fillers for conferences above and below the Red Line.
Author's note: Unless circumstances allow it, this will be my final contribution for the 800 Games Project. When you're on a mid-major island like Albuquerque, and on a budget to boot, the chances to witness Our Game with Our Teams are few and far between. However, March approaches, and Albuquerque is fortunate enough to have First- and Second-Round (or is it Second- and Third- now?) NCAA Tournament matches this year. Our Game always finds a way. Hopefully I'll be able to provide another recap then; if not, thank you for the opportunity to tell these stories. Hope you enjoyed them!
at NEW MEXICO 98, HOUSTON BAPTIST 61 01/03/2012
HOUSTON BAPTIST 4-9 (0-0) -- J. Latas 3-7 1-2 7; M. Smith 2-5 0-2 4; T. Russell 4-12 3-4 11; A. Bernadri 2-9 2-2 6; M. Davis 2-5 0-0 4; A. Hill 2-5 0-0 6; J. Evans 2-5 2-2 7; T. Bembry 2-7 0-0 4; D. Hobaugh 4-5 1-2 12; R. March Jr. 0-4 0-0 0; L. Thomas 0-3 0-0 0; D. Bowden 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-67 9-14 61. NEW MEXICO 13-2 (0-0) -- D. Gordon 6-9 1-2 13; A. Hardeman 3-3 0-1 6; T. Snell 7-11 1-2 18; K. Williams 4-6 0-0 9; J. Fenton 2-6 0-1 4; D. Walker 4-6 4-4 14; H. Greenwood 4-6 0-0 10; C. Bairstow 1-2 3-4 5; P. McDonald 4-6 0-0 11; C. Adams 0-1 2-2 2; D. Dunning 2-2 1-2 5; C. Perez 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 37-58 13-20 98.
Three-point goals: HBU 6-19 (A. Hill 2-5; J. Evans 1-3; M. Smith 0-2; T. Russell 0-2; A. Bernadri 0-2; R. March Jr. 0-1; M. Davis 0-1; D. Hobaugh 3-3), NM 11-24 (P. McDonald 3-5; C. Adams 0-1; J. Fenton 0-3; D. Walker 2-3; K. Williams 1-2; T. Snell 3-6; H. Greenwood 2-4); Rebounds: HBU 29 (L. Thomas 5), NM 35 (D. Gordon 10); Assists: HBU 14 (J. Evans 4), NM 24 (D. Walker 8); Total Fouls -- HBU 19, NM 12; Fouled Out: HBU-None; NM-None.