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Lobos’ return from Fresno includes missed flight, broken-down bus

The calendar may have a new name at the top, but March 1 hardly seemed to turn the page on the misfortune the UNM Lobo basketball team endured throughout February.

After Saturday’s 59-55 loss in Fresno, the team’s eighth in a row and all in the month of February after going 6-3 through the first half of Mountain West play, Sunday brought with it maintenance and weather delays on its American Airlines flight home, leading to an overnight bus ride back from Phoenix.

That plan worked fine for about 90 minutes.

Just a few miles outside Payson, Ariz., the bus’ battery light lit up, and an engine belt shredded, forcing the team to return to Payson. A mechanic made some repairs and the bus was back on the road shortly after 11 p.m. following nearly a 3 hour delay at a Giant gas station.

Earlier in the day, a delay of 2 hours, 15 minutes out of Fresno due to maintenance issues on the plane caused the Lobos to miss their connecting flight in Phoenix. Instead of breaking up the team, and the 22-member travel party, by sending players and support staff home one or two at a time as standby passengers, Lobo coach Craig Neal said he would rather them all get home together on a bus.

“We can’t break them up like that,” Neal said. “And there are no guarantees they even get home tomorrow (today) if we don’t do it this way. This way they all get back today and won’t miss class.”

After loading up for dinner at Lo-Lo’s Chicken & Waffles at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, the Lobos loaded their bus about 7 p.m. on Sunday night and were originally hopeful to arrive home around 2 a.m. Obviously that did not happen. For last Tuesday’s trip to Boise, Idaho, the team didn’t arrive back at campus until 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Neal stayed in Phoenix, where future Lobos signee Dane Kuiper (class of 2015) and verbally committed recruit Mitch Lightfoot (Class of 2016) play tonight in high school state title games. Assistant coach Drew Adams took the bus back to Albuquerque, but still planned on making a 6:45 a.m. flight out this morning to go recruiting.

Cody Hopkins, the team’s first-year director of basketball operations, was scrambling throughout the day to make arrangements for the drive back.

The Lobos, who don’t have a midweek game, play their regular-season finale Saturday against Wyoming.

“I think they want to play (again sooner), but I think the biggest thing is we’ll get over some things (like recent sickness) with some of our guys and give them a couple of days away,” Neal said. “They can reflect on how close they were – just how close they were on how many games, like this game. Maybe it will be a thing where we can breed some confidence in them with how well we’ve played.”

HIGH ON HUGH: As many opposing coaches have said throughout the season, the focal point for Fresno State’s defensive strategy was Lobo senior guard Hugh Greenwood. Make things difficult on him, so opposing scouting reports go, and most teams in the league are more than comfortable taking their chances that nobody else on the Lobo roster will make them pay.

Fresno State coach Rodney Terry said he was happy with the aggressive defense played on Greenwood, who finished the game shooting 1-of-7 from the floor with three points, three rebounds, three steals and five turnovers.

Being able to contain Greenwood, and get over the hump of beating the Lobos for the first time in six games playing in the Mountain West, especially after the Lobos made their run to cut the lead to two points in the second half, was a big step for the Bulldogs, Terry said.

“Greenwood is one of the more clutch players in our league,” Terry said. “He’s a winner. … We knew they weren’t just going to lay down. They have too much pride, and their culture of winning won’t allow them to do that. We knew we had to continue to play and compete at a high level.”

NEW STARTERS TO STAY? Xavier Adams was inserted into the starting lineup Saturday night and, while he responded with a solid stat line of eight points, four rebounds and two assists on 4-of-4 shooting, the move clearly didn’t get the team going.

The Lobos found themselves down 22 points (30-8) with 7:30 left in the opening half.

Still, Neal doesn’t regret trying a new lineup, something some fans had hoped for a few games ago.

“I just thought I had to change something up,” Neal said. “I don’t know if it would have mattered who we put in (avoiding that bad start). … I just put who I thought should have a chance. That was the biggest thing. Then we got off to a real slow start and we had to go back. I thought we had good efforts. A lot of these guys are growing up.”

LOBO LINKS: Geoff Grammer’s blog | Schedule/Results | Roster