SALT LAKE CITY — A funny thing happened to the New Mexico Lobos on their way to their first-ever Sweet 16.
The 14th-seeded Harvard Crimson, the Salt Lake Cinderella, used sharpshooting and tenacious defense to derail the dream season of the No. 3 seed Lobos in the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a shocking 68-62 upset Thurday night in front of 14,345 fans in EnergySolutions Arena.
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The result was all the more agonizing for the Lobo players and coaches, because it was something that could be seen coming from a mile away even through the most Cherry-tinted glasses.
UNM hit just 21 of -56 shots (37.5 percent) in the game, the 14th time this season the Lobos were held to under 40 percent.
“We’ve dodged this bullet a lot this year by having bad shooting nights and still be able to get wins,” UNM head coach Steve Alford said. “We weren’t able to dodge that bullet tonight.”
The Lobos finish the season with a 29-6 record overall, winners of the Mountain West regular-season and tournament championships, but also were eliminated in the first week of the NCAA Tournament despite holding a No. 3 seed for the second time in the past four seasons.
UNM still has never reached the Sweet 16 since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams.
Alford said he felt the Lobos were a distracted, unfocused team Thursday, a stark contrast to the Ivy League champion Crimson (20-9), which executed a game plan of ball-pressure defense and drive-and-kick offense to perfection.
“They came out, they punched us first and they played harder than us,” UNM sophomore center Alex Kirk said. “They wanted it obviously more than us tonight and it hurts.”
Alford and his players insisted talk of the Sweet 16 and beyond from fans and media was not the reason they lost.
“That’s there every year, and we want that,” Alford said of pressure for postseason success. “Again, we didn’t talk about Sweet 16. We just talked about this was Season 4 and trying to advance and do the things we needed to do to play well.”
Kirk had 22 points and 12 rebounds and hit nine of 18 shots. No other Lobo player who took more than one shot in the game shot 50 percent.
Despite his best efforts, there was no answer for the Crimson’s sharpshooting Laurent Rivard, who hit five 3-pointers and scored 17 points, or guard Wesley Saunders, who scored 18 points and sank eight of nine free throws, all in the second half to ice the largest upset so far in the tournament.
Rivard’s first trey came with 13:54 left in the first half and put Harvard up 7-2. While the game was anything but out of reach at that point, the tone had already been set. Harvard wasn’t going to back down, and UNM was left searching for answers they never found with Rivard.
“You know you hit the (first) shot and then you keep shooting after that,” Rivard said. “Then I hit another one, so I knew it was going to be a good game after that.”
After UNM trailed 31-27 at the half, it opened the second half on a 6-0 run to take its first lead at 33-31 with 18:43 to play.
Back-to-back Harvard 3-pointers erased that.
UNM then used a 6-0 run capped by a Jamal Fenton 3-pointer with 7:47 remaining to take a 49-47 lead. But again Harvard answered, and the Lobos’ usually dominant defense in the closing minutes of games failed them down the stretch.
“Defensively, we have been really strong all year,” Alford said, “but I thought from about six minutes to go in the (first) half throughout the second half, we weren’t very good defensively. We had some breakdowns. It was hard.”
Cameron Bairstow scored 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting but also had four turnovers. Mountain West Player of the Year Kendall Williams had eight points and zero assists, the first time this season he went without an assist. His backcourt partners Hugh Greenwood (zero points) and Tony Snell (4-of-12 shooting for nine points) struggled, too.
UNM’s starting backcourt of Williams, Snell and Greenwood shot a combined 5-of-21 (23.8 percent).
“We can’t shoot for them,” Alford said. “It’s all part of the game. … That’s an obviously glaring weakness on this basketball team, and we’ve got to do a lot of work in the offseason with our shooting.”
Harvard moves on to play No. 6 seed Arizona in the Round of 32 on Saturday at 4:10 p.m.
UNM, meanwhile, returns home again falling short of a deep postseason run, but Alford said that shouldn’t take away from the season that was.
“We fell short of our goal here in the fourth season (NCAA Tournament) of trying to advance and do some things, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s a setback. But it doesn’t take away from what these young men did for six months. Their body of work was tremendous, and I appreciate those efforts.”