LAS VEGAS, Nev. — The return to championship form in the Mountain West didn’t happen as advertised.
And for the third consecutive season, the University of New Mexico Lobos were one and done in the city, the arena, and the tournament it once felt it owned.
Fresno State guard Deshon Taylor scored 10 of his game-high 21 points in the final five minutes, leading the fourth-seeded Fresno State Bulldogs to a 65-60 win in the Mountain West Conference Tournament quarterfinals over No. 4 UNM in the Thomas & Mack Center.
Now, as fan apathy grows and frustration mounts, the question that looms large over the UNM men’s basketball program is whether Thursday’s loss was the end of the line at UNM (17-14) for more than just Tim Williams, the senior star who scored 15 points in his final college game.
“I’m not oblivious to it,” Lobos fourth-year head coach Craig Neal said of the fan discontent. “I’ve been a part when we won three in a row, too. … I like where the program is. I like the young players we have. I like who we’ve signed. We’ve got some stuff we’ve got to figure out. We don’t know exactly what Elijah is going to do, but I like where we are.”
Neal is in the fourth year of a contract that runs through 2020 and would cost the university $1 million if they fire him.
Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs, who is in New York this week working with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, responded to a text message from the Journal about Neal’s job status with a similar sentiment he’s given the past three years.
“As I have mentioned previously,” Krebs wrote, “when the season is over, we will sit down with Craig and evaluate the program.”
Brown, a junior who scored 16 points in Thursday’s loss on 6-of-21 shooting (3-of-11 from 3-point range and 1-of-2 from the free throw line), will test NBA draft waters again. He will also explore the possibility of a graduate transfer. He is expected to earn his degree in May and have an option to transfer to another Division I school without sitting out after two tumultuous seasons as the Lobos’ leading scorer.
“It’s a long way away,” Brown said of his UNM future. “I haven’t thought about that for one second. Still trying to get over this.”
As for the “this” he was trying to get over, he tried taking the blame not only for Thursday’s loss, but the struggles over the past month. It often featured him pressing to lead UNM to victories by firing up shots at a breakneck pace in the absence of Williams, who missed a month with foot injury. He earned a reputation around the league as a flopper, focusing more on trying to draw fouls than hit shots, something that appeared to happen again Thursday.
“I just wasn’t mentally strong enough to shoot the same shot I shoot in the gym every day when no one is guarding me,” Brown said. “They weren’t hard shots. I just missed way too many. And I hurt my team going down the stretch, I hurt my team today. I’ve got no excuses for that. I’ve got to get better. It’s not going to happen again.”
UNM shot 15 free throws in the first half, but just seven in the second half and two in the final 6:50 of the game despite Fresno State (20-11) having four big men already fouled out or sitting with four personal fouls.
In the closing minutes, UNM was either unable to get the same calls they got early or unable to draw the same fouls once the Bulldogs had foul trouble mounting.
“Actually, there was a lot of dialogue on the bench whether or not (to) change up the defense — whether to go to the zone, protect some guys, or try to stay who we are and finish this thing in terms of defensively, man-to-man,” said Fresno State coach Rodney Terry.
Neal said of the way the officiating shifted down the stretch: “You’d have to watch the tape on that. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Neal was called for a technical in the first half, leading to two free throws made by Taylor. Brown was called for a flagrant 1 foul for tripping Terrell Carter on what became a four-point possession for the Bulldogs, also in the first half.
Neal said neither were what decided the game.
The Lobos will not accept an invitation to play in any tournament other than the NIT at this point, which is unlikely.