Up the Pit ramp they jogged, their steps just as bouncy as the basketballs they had tossed into hoops way, way more often than did their Thursday night opponents.
Along this inclined path that can challenge mere mortals, these members of the University of New Mexico women’s team made their way to the locker room, neither breaking their brisk strides nor interrupting their loud, joyous chatter.
Three nonexclusive theories for this crazy behavior:
1. It’s their abundant personalities.
2. Their break began at that moment and extends until Christmas Night.
3. They know how good they are.
The answer to No. 3 is really good. Top 25 good, it says here.
After watching the Lobos beat Stephen F. Austin 74-33 on Thursday, UNM coach Mike Bradbury was asked if he agrees with the assessment.
“I don’t know … but I think we’ve navigated a pretty difficult schedule so far. I wish we could play the Preseason NIT right now,” he said, breaking into a grin.
That’s the source of this team’s lone blemish, a 79-76 loss to Auburn, after which UNM has won nine straight.
It’s also spilled milk to 6-foot-2 Lobo sophomore Antonia Anderson, who prefers to look ahead.
Maybe here’s why.
“We’re young right now, so basically we’re focusing on consistency and playing hard every game,” she said, adding, “ … right now we’re not even close to how good we’re going to be.”
That’s a scary thought to be addressed in a moment. For Lobo fans — which by the way, should be a broader demographic than the kids and senior citizens who dominated Thursday’s listed turnout of 4,702 — women’s basketball is the best show on South Campus these days.
The cynical rightfully can say that the competition isn’t so tough. The men and their coach are still trying to figure it out, football is in rebuilding mode for Bob Davie’s eighth year, and the one national power UNM program — women’s cross country — is decidedly not a spectator-friendly sport.
The group Bradbury has assembled, meanwhile, is extremely spectator friendly. Did I see Nike McClure, maybe the funniest interview the Journal reporters have had in quite some time — trading autographs with kids Thursday night? Word was she signed whatever they asked, they signed on her skin.
Postgame fan engagement has long been a forte of UNM women’s hoops. What’s different is this group’s style during the game. Fast. Fun. Frenetic. Unselfish. So athletic as to make up for tactical gaffes. Occasionally maddening — a behind-the-back pass that becomes a turnover by Aisia Robertson comes as part of a package for probably the most exciting Lobo in years.
Could this be the best Lobo team ever? Maybe brakes should be applied here. Certainly Don Flanagan’s 2003 Sweet 16 team can step up and say, “hold my beer.” Plus, this 10-1 start doesn’t even match last year’s 11-0. Then, UNM went to Oklahoma, minus an injured Jaisa Nunn, lost worse than the 105-63 final suggested, and finished 25-11.
But Nunn is back emphatically, and one can argue easily that every year-over-year roster replacement is an upgrade. And next year’s incoming are supposed to be even better. Some school that is in a Power Five league and/or cares a lot about women’s hoops might soon make a play for Bradbury. That would be a nice problem for UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez, considering that he has many of, you know, the other kind.
Through 11 games, UNM is outscoring its opponents by 19.5 points per game. Its Rating Percentage Index (RPI) as of Friday was 20th. Only one other team (Wyoming at No. 52) left on the schedule has an RPI as high as the team UNM politely embarrassed Thursday.
The next words to this were, “Maybe the Lobos aren’t yet ready for a UConn, Notre Dame or Stanford.” But you know what? Maybe they are. The requisite talent, athleticism and coaching are there.
Now it’s just about drive and, for the next three months, playing not to the level of an opponent, but up to a standard.
And that should be mile high.