What, yet another back-in-my-day story from the old guy? Wait — don’t stop reading, at least not until you see where I’m going. Tuesday’s Lobo basketball game against Fresno State in the Pit, I promise, will be discussed.
But, first, the history.
The 1989 New Mexico football Lobos weren’t just a little better than the 1988 Lobos. They were way better — bigger, faster, stronger. Entering the 1989 season, there was every reason to believe UNM would improve significantly on the 2-10 record the Lobos posted in 1988.
And yet, when the helmets and pads were put away in November 1989, the Lobos once again were 2-10. All the ’89 team really accomplished was losing by less: five defeats by seven points or fewer.
Now (and this is where I’m going), switch from football to basketball and fast-forward a third of a century.
Is there doubt in anyone’s mind that the current Lobos are better, or at least more talented, than the 2020-21 team that dropped the curtain on the Paul Weir era? Even with injuries and other departures that have created a defensive void in the paint, there’s more firepower, more quickness, more toughness.
Yet, entering Tuesday’s game at the Pit against Fresno State, despite near-misses against Utah State, Colorado State and Wyoming, the Lobos were 0-6 in Mountain West Conference play.
Now, they’re 0-7 after a similarly excruciating, 65-60 loss to the Bulldogs.
Ultimately, improvement is measured by only one thing: the won-lost record. This ain’t horseshoes.
And the Lobos’ loss to Fresno State fit the pattern — snugly, painfully, like a basketball shoe a size too small.
It was the opposite of whatever it takes.
On Saturday at Wyoming, the Lobos made shots but couldn’t get stops. Tuesday, they got stops (in the second half, at least) but couldn’t make shots. That’s how it goes when you’re laboring to get over the proverbial hump.
The thing is, though, the Lobos acknowledge that, despite the near-misses, it’s not a hump they’re trying to get over.
It’s Mount Everest, or might as well be.
“We have to understand that we’re nowhere close to where we need to be,” said UNM junior guard KJ Jenkins.
First-year UNM coach Richard Pitino said essentially the same thing — or, well, OK, almost exactly the same thing.
“It’s hard to say ‘get over the hump,'” he said. “I just think we’re so far away from where we need to be.”
Since we’re throwing out “getting over the hump” here, we might as well go for the cliché double in pointing out that there’s no quit in this UNM team.
Fresno State, not an exceptional shooting team this season, opened the game by hitting its first eight shots — building a 26-9 early lead before settling for a 41-26 advantage at halftime.
The Lobos clawed their way back. Two Jamal Mashburn Jr. free throws cut the Fresno State lead to 51-49 with a whole bunch of time, 6 minutes, 23 seconds, left.
But, once again, the claws weren’t quite sharp enough.
After the Bulldogs moved back out to a 61-53 lead with 2:02 left, here came the Lobos again. A Jaelen House floater in the lane made it 63-60 with 45 seconds left.
After Fresno State’s Isaiah Hill missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Jenkins got a great look at a game-tying 3-pointer. It rimmed out.
Next up for the Lobos, on Friday, is a potential breakthrough home game against San Jose State, 0-6 in Mountain West play.
Could a win over the Spartans, struggling though they are, be enough to turn the key in the lock?
Or are the 2021-22 basketball Lobos destined to become the 1989 football Lobos, a team of almost?