ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After all of the blood and sweat, all that was left were tears.
Like so many games this season, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team was doing what it does best Thursday night – chalking up floor burns, hurling bodies into the opposition and playing defense like its life depended on it.
Which, this time, it probably did. Its NCAA Tournament life, that is.
But unlike so many other games, the Lobos’ fire ignited too late. This time, all the blood and sweat wasn’t enough.
And all that remained were tears.
“We didn’t play defense, and it cost us the game,” said senior Daniel Faris, his voice cracking while tears still filled his eyes a full 30 minutes after the Lobos’ emotionally draining 75-67 loss to Wyoming in the Mountain West Conference tournament quarterfinals. “We needed that to make the NCAA Tournament. It’s just a repeat of last year.”
And so many others.
This marked the eighth time in the 10-year history of the MWC that the Lobos failed to advance out of the opening round of the league tournament.
Just like last year, the Lobos came into the event on a roll. Last year they won eight of their final nine regular-season games, finished 11-5 in the conference, had a 24-7 overall record and were seeded third in the MWC tournament. But they lost 82-80 in overtime to sixth-seeded Utah – a team they had beaten twice in the regular season – to crush their NCAA Tournament hopes.
This year, UNM charged into Las Vegas having won eight of nine and five straight. They had a 21-10 record and went even one better in the MWC, going 12-4. This year, that was good enough for a share of the league title with Brigham Young and Utah.
But a tiebreaker sent the Lobos back into the dreaded No. 3 spot, again playing a team it dropped twice during the season that ended up as the sixth seed.
Nearly all of the NCAA Tournament experts agreed. If the Lobos beat the Cowboys to get to the league semifinals, they would get invited to the Big Dance.
But what’s that about those who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it?
“We could have helped ourselves with a win,” said senior Chad Toppert, wiping tears from his eyes, but being his usual stand-up self after the game. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. That’s the way college basketball is. We just can’t get too far down on this loss. Wherever we end up, we’ve got to keep going.”
Where they end up, according to the Wyoming fans at the Thomas and Mack Center on Thursday, will be the National Invitation Tournament. Again.
The Cowboy fans, who were far outnumbered by UNM’s, chanted “N-I-T, N-I-T” as the final minutes counted down Thursday night.
And that’s probably for both. For a program picked to finish near the bottom of the league – one that lost four straight games midway through the conference campaign – the NIT would mark a successful season for the Cowboys (19-13 after losing to Utah in Friday’s semifinals).
But for a Lobos program that finished at the top of the regular-season standings, the NIT would be crushing blow.
While coaches around the league, including UNM’s Steve Alford, have repeatedly said that no team that has at least shared the MWC regular-season title has ever been left out of the NCAA Tournament, that is simply not true.
In 2001, BYU, Wyoming and Utah all shared the crown at 10-4. But only BYU, which won the conference tournament, headed to the NCAAs.
So now the Lobos play the waiting game. And it’s a game in which they are huge underdogs.
But they are still alive, at least according to some of NCAA Tournament projection Web sites.
“That’s all we can do now, is wait and hope,” Toppert said.
Toppert had one of the worst games of his career, going 0-for-10, including 0-for-8 from 3-point range. In the past week against Wyoming, he was 0-for-15 from 3-point range.
But he wasn’t the only Lobo to struggle Thursday. Junior wing Roman Martinez went 1-of-7 from 3-point range and the team was 3-of-23 behind the arc, and 0-for-11 in the second half.
The senior trio – Toppert, Faris and Tony Danridge – all had problems. While Faris had 12 points, 10 came in the opening 13 minutes, and he fouled out after just 17 minutes of action. Danridge had 13 points but made just one field goal in the first half.
Faris says he thinks the Lobos’ NCAA Tournament chances are dim. “I always hope there’s a shot (of getting to the NCAAs),” Faris said. “But I’m just lucky to be playing basketball right now. It hurts a lot to lose that game.”