ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Noodles era was ushered in with a Harley and a Howl.
In front of 10,158 fans Friday night and a national television audience on ESPNU, University of New Mexico first year men’s basketball coach Craig Neal rode his Harley-Davidson motorcycle 37 feet down the ramp to the Pit floor to a thunderous ovation of rabid fans at the Lobo Howl.
EDITOR’S NOTE: View intro video at bottom of page.
“I’ve been talking about it for six years and never could get them to let me do it,” Neal said of the special introduction. “I guess since I’m the boss now, they kind of let me do it. Paul (Krebs, UNM’s athletic director) was all for it. He just wanted to know if I had insurance.”
And if the “Easy Rider” entrance wasn’t symbolic enough of the new era after April’s departure of coach Steve Alford to UCLA, a video played on the large monitors in the Pit started off by showing the gray-haired, mop-topped Neal opening a closet and reaching for the cherry blazer that became iconic under the previous regime.
But Neal, Steve Alford’s nine-season assistant (six seasons at UNM, three at Iowa), left the blazer in the closet and opted instead for his leather jacket. The video montage showed him riding around the streets of Albuquerque before his Pit arrival.
“I can’t tell you what it means to have all you fans here,” Neal told the Pit fans. “We’ve got an unbelievable facility. We’ve got the best fans in America and I’m one fortunate dude to be the head coach of the Lobos.”
Eventually, there was basketball, too.
Junior college transfer Deshawn Delaney’s 38 points in the final round of the slam dunk contest held off reigning champion Cameron Bairstow for this year’s crown.
In the 3-point contest, freshman newcomer Cullen Neal, Craig Neal’s son, scored 19 points in the final round – stopping before draining his final basket to raise his hands in the air to get the crowd cheering – to beat junior guard Hugh Greenwood (15 points).
The Lobos also ran through drills and a brief scrimmage before calling it a night around 9 p.m., leaving the court to another loud ovation.
‘WE WANT Z’: With 5,000 “Z” signs distributed to fans before the Lobo Howl by an independent fan website, chants of “We want Z” frequently cascaded down from the stands.
Phoenix South Mountain High School senior Zylan Cheatham, making an official on-campus recruiting visit to UNM this weekend, was sitting behind the Lobo bench with his family and two future Lobo players – Xavier Adams (class of 2014) and Dane Kuiper (2015), both of whom have already given verbal commitments to attend UNM.
Cheatham, who told the Journal he hopes to make a decision next weekend, frequently stood and waved to acknowledge the chants.
UNM is prohibited from talking about specific recruits and did not pay for or distribute the signs.
LOBO WOMEN: Coach Yvonne Sanchez’s bunch served as the show’s warm-up act with a 45-minute performance comprised largely of full-court drills.
Sanchez did not ride a motorcycle, her team did not scrimmage, nor did players reprise their dance routine from 2012.
“We really wanted to,” sophomore Bryce Owens said, “and we just about had (Sanchez) talked into it. But with 45 minutes, we really didn’t have enough time.”
Still, there were highlights.
Junior Antiesha Brown won the 3-point contest, outgunning freshman Alex Lapeyrolerie in the final round. Brown netted 33 treys in three one-minute rounds.
And as Sanchez expected, just appearing at the Howl was entirely thrilling enough for the newest Lobos. Freshmen Lapeyrolerie, Brooke Allemand, Lauren Newman, Kianna Keller and Marissa Perry enjoyed big ovations upon their first introductions.
“I was pretty nervous just running down the ramp,” Lapeyrolerie said. “I can’t believe how much fun it was playing in front of all those fans – and this wasn’t even a game.”
Josie Greenwood, younger sister of Hugh Greenwood, received an extra loud ovation when she was introduced.
“This was overwhelming,” she said with wide smile. “I’d been told the crowds were amazing here, but I’m usually one of the people sitting in the stands. I can’t believe I get to be on the court for fans like this. I really am almost speechless.”
Making the most of the moment, Brown and junior transfer Ebony Walker performed their own brief dances after the Lobos’ closing huddle. The women’s team also got fans started doing the wave before the men’s team was introduced.