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Lobo Classic: The day a TorC kid’s shot felled a giant

Editor’s note: With no live sports to cover for the time being, the University of New Mexico athletic communications department has begun a periodic series of features called “Lobo Classics,” a celebration of some of the best moments in Lobo athletic history. It’s largely the brainchild of assistant sports information director Daniel Gallegos, marketing director Joe Thuente and is fan-input driven.

The Journal is collaborating with its own coverage of this installment, a look back at the 77-74 UNM men’s basketball victory over No. 3-ranked Utah on Feb. 1, 1998 at the Pit. Rick Wright’s offering below is one of five stories the Journal wrote that day, with three reporters staffing the game.

UNM finished the season 24-8 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament. Utah, meanwhile, reached the NCAA championship game before losing to Kentucky.

At golobos.com, see also Gallegos’ retrospective report here. Below, see a video of star of the game Royce Olney as he reflects back on that big day.

Class dismissed.

In a wild session that almost went into detention – I mean, overtime – the victory Sunday went to the unruly, spit-ball throwing kids in the back row. The disruptive element. The Sweathogs.

For the honors students, it’s back to the books.

For the better part of two hours on Sunday afternoon, the third-ranked University of Utah men’s basketball team took over the floor of University Arena and held a clinic.

Coach and guest lecturer Rick Majerus turned loose his latest star pupil, point guard Andre Miller, while the University of New Mexico Lobos played the role of dupes to Miller’s dazzling array of drives, kickouts and jumpers.

The rest of the Utes knew their assignments perfectly, too, which is why Lobos coach Dave Bliss was saying afterward he almost – almost, mind you – would have preferred coaching against departed Utah All-American Keith Van Horn.

“They’ve just got so many players who do so many things,” Bliss said after Sunday’s nationally televised game.

The Utes can shoot – a remarkable 61.7 percent Sunday. Utah’s two starting big men, senior Michael Doleac and sophomore Hanno Mottola, each hit two 3-pointers. They can pass; Miller had a game-high seven assists to go with his game-high 24 points. They can defend; Lobos center Kenny Thomas had five turnovers – one on a potentially fatal offensive foul – and struggled to get touches underneath against the tall Utah frontline.

“They’re one of the best teams,” Bliss said, “that I’ve ever had one of my teams go up against.”

As good as Arizona? Perhaps not. But no team the Lobos have played, including Arizona, plays a smarter, more fundamentally grounded, game of basketball than the Utes.

They looked unbeatable – well, almost.

Not their best behavior

The Lobos, meanwhile, were a restless audience. Falling behind with the first basket of the game, they stayed that way for 39 minutes, 37.4 seconds. They trailed by 11 at halftime, by 13 early in the second half.

But, as Mottola said later, “Those guys (the Lobos) just wouldn’t go away.”

No, they wouldn’t. Twice, Royce Olney 3-pointers cut the Utah lead to six. A Thomas basket off an offensive rebound made it four. Backup center Ben Baum’s two free throws, his only points of the game, brought the Lobos within two, 58-56, with 7:10 left.

But the Utes restored order.

With 4:13 left in the game and the Lobos trailing 66-60, Miller and Utah supplied what appeared to be the coup de grace. Penetrating as he had all day, the Utah point guard found teammate Drew Hansen standing alone in the corner. Miller’s pass barely seemed to touch Hansen’s hands before the ball found its way to the net.

The score was 69-60, and then a frustrated Thomas knocked Mottola to the floor with a Sweathoggian elbow on the Lobos’ ensuing possession – drawing an offensive foul and giving the Utes a nine-point lead and the ball.

Session over? You could almost hear the bell.

The Lobos, however, weren’t quite ready for the clinic to end.

And the Utes were showing signs of wear.

After Thomas’ offensive foul, Mottola missed an open shot at the other end. Thomas grabbed the rebound. Later, Hansen missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw situation. Miller, human after all, was called for a five-second “closely guarded” violation. Still 69-60.

Finally, the Lobos took advantage. Clayton Shields, frustrated most of the game by Utah’s switching defense, got loose for a 3-pointer.

Ugly is beautiful

Then, with 1:35 and UNM still down by six, Bliss called a timeout. When the Lobos returned to the court, they brought with them into the classroom a new and dangerous weapon.

The press.

“We’re not really a pressing team,” Bliss said.

Yet, in the press, the Lobos were rowdy. Physical. Effective beyond words.

Right out of the timeout, the Lobos stole the ball from Miller, leading to a Shields dunk. The press extracted the ball from Miller again seconds later, producing an Olney 3-pointer and cutting the Utes’ lead to one.

Both times, fouls on UNM could have been called. Both times, they weren’t.

“I don’t know if the refs should have called fouls on those plays,” Mottola said. “They didn’t. That’s just the way it goes.”

And, a frenetic one minute, three seconds later, capped by yet another 3-pointer from Olney – with that haircut and that glare, he might be the ultimate Sweathog – the Lobos had an amazing, 77-74 victory.

“The biggest fault is probably mine,” said Majerus, recognized as one of the nation’s best X’s-and-O’s coaches. “I probably spent too much time on defense (in preparation for the game) and not enough on offense, especially against the press.”

Call it a victory for Bliss, the Lobos and controlled chaos.

ABC-TV, which telecast the game to most of the nation, got 38-plus minutes of “Head of the Class.” It got a minute-and-a-half of “Welcome Back Kotter,” Sweathogs and all.

Guess which portion of the show got the better ratings in Albuquerque.

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