Before Harvard, before Louisville – both times – and before Cal State Fullerton, there was NCAA Tournament heartbreak in the heart of Loboville.
The Lobos’ debut in the Big Dance was one of their most frustrating, because they attended without one of the ones who brought them.
“It was an honor to play, an honor to be in it, and we were all excited,” says Ron Nelson, the University of New Mexico’s senior All-America guard in that 1968 tournament. “But it was disappointing and really frustrating.”
The Lobos entered the West Regional – played in the Pit – ranked sixth in the country with a 23-3 record. But they were without sophomore center Greg “Stretch” Howard, who averaged 14.4 points and 9.7 rebounds a game and was a defensive monster. As a transfer who played just one season in junior college, he was ineligible for the tournament – per an old NCAA rule.
UNM’s other starting big man, Ron Sanford (15.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg), did play, but was hobbled by a knee injury.
The Lobos were no match for Santa Clara, led by 7-foot Dennis Awtrey and the 6-7 Ogden brothers – Carlos “Bud” and Ralph. All three were eventually drafted into the NBA and Awtrey became a standout.
The Broncos’ three big men combined for 46 points and Santa Clara won 86-73. UCLA beat New Mexico State in the other regional semifinal game that night in the Pit, and the Lobos lost to the Aggies 62-58 the next night in the now-defunct regional consolation game.
“You always wonder what might have happened had we been able to play Stretch,” Nelson said. “Then again, we wouldn’t have been 23-3 had we not had Stretch. At the time, the way Bob King built the program was by getting juco guys after just one year. But had (Howard) stayed two years in junior college, he’d have probably gotten recruited someplace else and not have come to New Mexico.
“If we had been in the NIT that year – which was a lot bigger tournament in those days than it is now – we would have been allowed to play Stretch. I think if Bob King would have had his choice, we would have probably gone to the NIT. But since the regional was in Albuquerque, there wasn’t any way you could get out of that.”
Even without Howard, Nelson still thought the Lobos had a chance.