It was a glimpse of the future.
And if Tuesday night is any indication, that future looks pretty hot.
On many levels.
On yet another uncomfortably blistering night in the Pit and on a day in which coach Steve Alford again showed his competitive side, the New Mexico Lobos also showed they might be a pretty darn fiery bunch as well next season. The Lobos whipped UTEP 69-57 in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament in front of a crowd of 9,626.
The day started with a heated altercation between the teams, and ended with the Lobos (22-12) advancing into the NIT’s second round at Alabama. UTEP finished 25-10.
The Bama game will be played between March 18-21, and should be announced today.
“There’s no love loss in the rivalry, that’s for sure,” Alford said of the Lobos’ 141st game against UTEP. “They do things one way, we do things (pause) — there’s a lot of ways to be successful, and there’s a lot of ways to do things. They do things quite a bit differently than what we do.”
ESPN2 play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen and analyst Stephen Bardo talked about the confrontation during their telecast.
Wischusen told the Journal it “was very heated, but it was probably a misunderstanding about what time each team was supposed to be on the floor.”
UTEP coach Tim Floyd said there was no misunderstanding.
“We requested 11 a.m., they took 11,” said Floyd, a former coach for the Chicago Bulls and in his 17th year as a collegiate coach. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll go 10-to-11,’ and they said they needed a 30-minute window beforehand. We said, ‘OK, we’ll go at noon.’ They said, ‘Well, we have a 30-minute window on the back end.’
“So I said, ‘We’ll go at 9:30,’ so we go at 9:30, and they’re up there watching our practice,” Floyd said of the Lobos. “Then they came walking down on the floor. I’ve never had that happen in my career, and I felt there was no place for it. This was not a Lobo home game. It’s an NIT championship event.”
Alford told the Journal that “I’ve coached for 20 years, too, and I’ve never seen a coach take that much extra time for a shoot-around. We weren’t watching them, we came down the ramp for our 10:30 shoot-around and they were still out there at 10:55 because they were late getting there.”
Alford said Floyd refused to leave the floor.
“It was feisty,” said Lobo sophomore Jamal Fenton, who started at point guard in place of injured senior Dairese Gary. “I guess they stayed late, and coach Alford didn’t want to have that. Coach (UNM assistant Craig) Neal got into it, we had to calm it down. We really didn’t need any extra hype for this game; the shoot-around got us hyped up enough.”
Fenton said it carried over into the game, where “there were some very intense feelings out there. At halftime, coming up the ramp, they were still talking some mess. We used that to our advantage.”
The 5-foot-9 Fenton had eight points and a career-high six assists and made a number of plays. He had a couple of free throws after a strong drive to cap a 10-0 Lobo run that gave the Lobos a 27-21 lead in the first half. UNM never trailed again.
Junior post Drew Gordon had 18 points and nine rebounds, and freshman guard Kendall Williams had 18 points, five boards and three assists.
Junior Phillip McDonald drained three straight 3s in the second half and finished with 12 points.
Randy Culpepper had a game-high 23 points for the Miners, who are scheduled to play in the Pit next season.
Gary, who tore the ACL in his right knee in Friday’s Mountain West Conference semifinal loss to BYU in Las Vegas, Nev., could only root his teammates on from the bench on Tuesday. But he had a lot to cheer.