Even with two goals not achieved, New Mexico men’s basketball coach Craig Neal said he looks back on his debut season as a successful one.
The Lobos reached 27 wins, the most under a first-year head coach; won the Mountain West Basketball Championship for the third time, completing the first three-peat in conference history; and returned to the NCAA tournament.
The goals the team did not reach: falling one game short of the MW regular-season title to San Diego State and yet another early exit at the NCAAs, this time to Stanford.
That latter stumble stings particularly among Lobo fans, if chatter on local talk radio is concerned. Despite all that, Neal said at his end-of-season press conference last Wednesday that he was happy with how the season played out.
“I thought our guys played exciting basketball. I thought our guys were fun to watch,” Neal said. “I was really impressed with their maturity and their improvement, not only from last summer but during the year.”
Recapping the season
UNM went 9-3 in its nonconference season what included wins over Marquette, Cincinnati and Davidson. The Lobos were overshadowed in the national spotlight as conference rival SDSU rattled off 10 straight nonconference wins, including a four-point victory over then No. 16 Kansas. UNM fell to the Jayhawks three weeks earlier.
That Aztec winning streak stopped at 20 with a 68-62 loss at Wyoming on Feb. 11. UNM kept pace with SDSU in the conference standings despite setbacks to UNLV and Boise State. The Lobos won their first showdown with the Aztecs convincingly in The Pit with a 58-44 decision on Feb. 22.
The victory forced a tie for the conference lead with four games remaining on both teams’ schedule. The teams were not due to face each other again until the March 8 regular-season finale. Both teams did their part — winning the next three games — to ensure the final game determined the regular-season crown.
In the game at San Diego’s Viejas Arena, New Mexico built a 16-point lead in the second half before the Aztecs surged back for a 51-48 win and the conference tournament’s No. 1 seed. The Lobos settled for the second seed in the following week’s tourney in Las Vegas, Nev.
“It’s tough because our goal was to win the regular-season, and I thought 14-4 would win the regular-season. It didn’t,” Neal said. “We were 15-3, and that’s the most conference wins we’ve had in a conference season, which was outstanding, but we couldn’t get over the hump.”
On postseason play
Paired on opposite ends of the bracket, the Lobos and Aztecs seemed poised for one more game at the MW tournament. Both teams needed to get there first.
As the top two seeds, New Mexico and San Diego State earned first round byes and then easily dispatched their second-round foes: the Lobos dropped Fresno State 93-77 and the Aztecs routed Utah State 73-39. SDSU then reached the title game with a 59-51 win over UNLV, and UNM completed the rematch by holding off Boise State by three points, 70-67.
The teams played a thriller for the tournament crown. UNM carried a five-point edge into the locker room and overcame poor play at the start of the second half for a 64-58 victory, securing the conference’s automatic bid to the conference tournament.
Although UNM captured two wins over San Diego State, the Aztecs received a higher seed (No. 4) than the Lobos (No. 7) for the NCAAs. New Mexico suffered another early exit when No. 10 seed Stanford scored 17 straight points in the first half and the Lobos could not come back in a 58-53 loss.
SDSU, meanwhile, reached the Sweet 16 and fell to No. 1 seed Arizona.
“We won 27 games and won another championship and got back to the tournament,” Neal said. “One of the things we didn’t accomplish was advancing. We’ve got to continue to work on that.”