PORTLAND, Ore. — It certainly was one sweet season.
The ending, however, was again as bitter as it gets for the New Mexico men’s basketball team.
Just as it happened 15 years earlier, the Louisville Cardinals blew out the candles before the Lobos’ Sweet 16 party could get started. But it took a lot of huffing and puffing to do it.
The Lobos erased nearly all of a 15-point, second-half deficit, but came up just shy of completing one of the most dramatic comebacks in school history and lost 59-56 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament West Regional here on Saturday night. The loss also left UNM (28-7) short of getting its first-ever back-to-back victories in the event, and getting to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the tournament was expanded in 1985.
In 1997, Louisville beat UNM 64-63 in the round of 32 — the closest the Lobos have ever gotten to that elusive dream.
“It hurts. It really hurts,” said UNM guard Kendall Williams. “We kept fighting, kept believing in each other. We didn’t want our season to end; we knew we had the ability to come back. We lost a little focus for a while.
Unfortunately, that was the tale of the game.”
That tale was the first five minutes of the second half, anyway, when the Cardinals went on an 18-4 run to lead 44-29.
Louisville (28-9) looked like a different team to open the half and turned the game around with some long-range shooting and pressure defense.
Guard Chris Smith hit a pair of 3-pointers in the surge, and forward Kyle Kuric had two field goals. But it was a key 10-second stretch that really put the Lobos in a bind.
With the score 36-29, UNM freshman point guard Hugh Greenwood threw an inbounds pass too deep from under his offensive basket, and Louisville guard Peyton Siva snatched it and broke free. He fed behind-the-back to Kuric for a layup.
The Cards then stole the ball in the backcourt and Russ Smith scored on a three-point play to make it 41-29.
Less than two minutes later, Chris Smith hit the second of his 3s for the 15-point lead.
“We just got out of rhythm, out of sync offensively, I thought,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “And then, to start the second half, I think they really came at us and got some easy baskets, which we hadn’t given up in the first half.”
But the 21st-ranked Lobos made a furious rally and sliced it all the way to two points on two occasions in the final two minutes.
Junior guard Jamal Fenton started the comeback with back-to-back drives, and senior post Drew Gordon took control inside to get the crowd of 18,167 at the Rose Garden — about 300 being Lobo fans — involved in the game.
Gordon had a tremendous reverse alley-oop slam off a Phillip McDonald feed and scored 13 of his team’s final 21 points. And when Walker hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:38 remaining, the Louisville lead was down to 53-51.
But the Lobos could never get possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.
Siva, held in check most of the game, ran the shot clock down, then blew by the Lobo defense twice in the final minutes — once for a layup and the other for an assist on a dunk by Gorgui Dieng — as Louisville put it away.
“Siva just got away from us; he’s a very talented guard,” said UNM’s Demetrius Walker. “I don’t want to take anything away from him. But we just weren’t able to get stops towards the end.”
Down 59-56, the Lobos fouled the Cardinals’ Elisha Justice, who missed the front end of a one-and-one with 2.9 seconds remaining. Gordon got the rebound, but his full-court heave came up far short of the basket.
“We didn’t really have time to look at the clock,” Gordon said. “There (were 2.9) seconds left when we started. (The free throw) kind of rolled around on the rim and was tipped a few times. So I figured by the time I got the ball, there was what, maybe a second-and-a-half? It’s tough to get it to an outlet and have the outlet shoot an accurate shot.”
New Mexico, the region’s fifth seed, looked like the better team most of the opening half against the 17th-ranked Cardinals, the fourth seed and Big East Conference tournament champion.
There were seven ties and two lead changes in the first half. The Lobos led by as much as 11-6 and the Cards never led by more than three before settling for a 26-25 halftime lead.
The Lobos started hot, hitting five of their first nine shots in the opening five minutes, but went just 8-of-27 in the next 22 minutes.
Gordon led the Lobos with 21 points and 14 rebounds. Williams had 11 points and five assists. Russ Smith scored 17 for the Cardinals.
NEW MEXICO (28-7)
Hardeman 4-7 0-1 8, Gordon 8-15 4-5 21, Greenwood 0-4 0-0 0, Williams 5-11 0-0 11, Snell 1-5 0-0 3, Adams 0-0 0-0 0, Fenton 2-6 0-0 4, McDonald 1-3 0-0 3, Walker 2-7 0-0 5, Bairstow 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 23-58 5-8 56.
Kuric 3-7 2-2 10, Behanan 5-7 0-2 10, Dieng 3-7 0-0 6, Siva 2-6 2-2 6, C. Smith 3-6 0-0 8, R. Smith 5-12 4-5 17, Price 0-1 0-0 0, Swopshire 0-0 0-0 0, Justice 0-0 0-1 0, Blackshear 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 22-48 8-12 59.
Halftime—Louisville 26-25. 3-Point Goals—New Mexico 5-23 (Gordon 1-1, McDonald 1-3, Walker 1-3, Williams 1-5, Snell 1-5, Greenwood 0-3, Fenton 0-3), Louisville 7-15 (R. Smith 3-3, Kuric 2-5, C. Smith 2-5, Blackshear 0-1, Dieng 0-1). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—New Mexico 36 (Gordon 14), Louisville 25 (Dieng 10). Assists—New Mexico 13 (Williams 5), Louisville 9 (Siva 5). Total Fouls—New Mexico 12, Louisville 14. A—18,167.