Not since the days of cowboys and Indians—or hoss thieves and posses, anyway—had the West had such a nice basic conflict. It was not, unfortunately, bad guys and good guys—the terms being statistical rather than moral—but there was never a more dramatic confrontation. Coming out of Provo, Utah was Brigham Young, for most of the season the nation's No. 1 offensive team, headed for Albuquerque, home of the New Mexico Lobos, the nation's best defensive team. Any fan in Albuquerque who went the whole week without once using the expressions "irresistible force" and "immovable object" was clearly tortured by restraint.
It may indeed have been the classic basketball face-off. Because the teams happened to be the two best in what may suddenly become the best conference, none of the game's luster was lost when Miami (Fla.) coincidentally scored 141 points against somebody not even listed in the NCAA Guide to displace Brigham Young in the top offensive spot. As it turned out, the Cougars would have slid back to second anyway, because the Lobos held them to 70 points, scored 89 on their own and thus moved into first place in the Western Athletic Conference.
It would be very neat to wrap it all up in ribbons as a victory for defense over offense, but it was really rebounding that won for New Mexico. Such a fuss had been made about the Lobos' allowing only 48 points a game that it had been almost forgotten they were also second in the country in rebounding. The New Mexico defense was outstanding—particularly in keeping BYU's high-scoring John Fairchild from getting the ball inside—but it was on the boards that the Lobos were toughest, outrebounding the visitors 41-22.
The battle was certainly joined in the spirit of the occasion, though. Each team went with its strength, a fact that was strongly suggested at practice the day before the game. For offense, New Mexico made but a cursory concession to foul shooting and working the ball inside (and only as part of a full-court drill). Otherwise Coach Bob King worked the whole time on defense. Then Coach Stan Watts came on with the Cougars, who, in their fashion, concentrated on fast breaks. It was a wasted practice, though, for the next night Brigham Young just could not get the ball often enough to make the break work. Counting liberally, the Cougars got off five breaks, and scored on only one of them.
New Mexico scored once on a break—which it does about as regularly as the U.S. makes the Gadsden Purchase. With the squad's only senior, an intense and emotional little guard named Skip Kruzich, running the team, New Mexico most of the time plays a deliberate game that often means passing up shots from as close as the free-throw line. Perhaps because there never was any worthwhile basketball in New Mexico before, the fans are not disappointed by this. They screamed, "Slow it down," and expressed genuine displeasure when the Lobos—with the game settled—began to score with more ease against Brigham Young. What was upsetting the fans was that scoring by New Mexico meant that Brigham Young could get the ball and also score. Johnson Gymnasium was one loud groan when the Cougars hit 70—meaningless though the figure was. "When you're No. 1 in defense," Skip Kruzich says, "you develop pride in that side of the game fast enough." Everyone at New Mexico is on the defense.
The University of New Mexico is in Albuquerque because, the story goes, Santa Fe, the state capital, had a choice and decided it would rather have the state pen than the state university. Albuquerque, at the foot of the Sandia Mountains, is one of the fastest-growing and sunniest cities in America. By actual count, according to the front page of the afternoon newspaper, the sun has now shone on Albuquerque on 1,154 of the last 1,156 days, and that was wonderfully reassuring knowledge to bask in last week when the temperature seldom rose over 30 sunny degrees. Albuquerque is built like its name, oblong. It follows Route 66 for almost as long as those two guys in the sports car on TV. Route 66 runs for almost 20 miles within the city limits, with both sides banked almost entirely by gas stations, motels and restaurants that give hamburgers fancy names. If you like hamburgers and free TV in every room, you can get your kicks on Route 66. Gratefully, this neon dedication to the garish is interrupted by the university campus, which is all done in Pueblo style. Johnson Gymnasium (basketball capacity 6,457) is also in this style, despite its size. Johnson faces right on 66, with a statue of a lobo in front of it. This is probably the only lobo that any one at UNM has ever seen, since this breed of wolf—and, indeed, all wolves—has long since left the state. For a live mascot the university has to make do with a tough-looking Alaskan husky that masquerades as a lobo.
The husky-lobo attends football games but is not permitted to go to the basketball games, because it gets too excited around the court. There is hardly room for it anyway, basketball is suddenly bringing out such interest throughout Albuquerque. Ticket demands were so great for the BYU game that the student allotment had to be raised—a move that not only shut out many angry local fans but almost kept out some Mormon missionaries who wandered in from Indian reservations to root for their Cougars. This sort of clamor is altogether new at New Mexico. Just a few years ago only 800 or so were showing up for games and they, it seems, mostly for laughs. Things have turned around so fast that in the brief time he has been at New Mexico—less than three seasons—Coach King's teams have won more games (57) than the Lobos did in the previous nine years.
This renaissance is not confined to New Mexico. The entire Western Athletic Conference, which is just three years old, is playing basketball that is at least the equal of any in the country. Only the Missouri Valley has an inter-conference lead over the WAC (10-6), and against all outside competition the WAC record this year is 74-21. This is most simply accounted for by good recruiting, much of it in the Midwest. Coach King, an Illinoisan with a stopover for three years as an assistant coach at Iowa, has a starting lineup of players from Detroit, Indianapolis, Canton, Ohio and Mokena, Ill. The native ringer is Ben Monroe, who makes up for some of the local deficiency by being not only from New Mexico but from Carlsbad, where he worked summers past in the caverns. Another element in New Mexico's and the WAC's success is the liberal use of junior college transfers. Three of the New Mexico starters stopped on their way from the Midwest long enough to play ball and study at junior colleges in Iowa, Kansas and Colorado.
The overall strength in the conference is illustrated by the fact that, before last week's games eased things a bit, four teams were virtually tied for first place. Then New Mexico moved to the top alone when it beat Brigham Young after Brigham Young had beaten Wyoming and Arizona State beat Arizona. On Thursday, Wyoming had given the Cougars a real fight before bowing, just as Utah was doing with the Lobos. Both games went to the final buzzer. In Laramie, BYU Guard Mike Gardner won the game 96-94 with a last-second layup. In Albuquerque, the home folks felt called upon to bombard the court once with trash, but at least they went home winners when New Mexico sophomore Bill Morgan threw in a jumper with seven seconds left in the overtime period to end it 65-64. In regulation time Jerry Chambers of Utah had tied the game at the buzzer with one of his line-drive jump shots from near the free-throw line. He was fouled in the act but missed what would have been the winning point when his free throw first hit the back rim, then the front one, before bouncing out. Poor Chambers missed another foul with 18 seconds left in the overtime, and that led to New Mexico getting the ball back and to Morgan making the winning shot.
New Mexico's effort against Utah was as poor as any the team had shown this year, but the Lobos can be excused a few odd nights since, remarkably, three of the starters are sophomores. But King's sophomores—Morgan, Monroe and 6-foot-9 Mel Daniels—have caught on amazingly fast. It is these three, together with junior Dick (Boo) Ellis, who rattle the backboards so thoroughly. (Ellis is a nephew of the original Boo Ellis from Niagara and the pros. This Boo Ellis is New Mexico's, and possibly the conference's, most complete player.) With all four crashing the boards, King admits that his team is vulnerable to fast breaks, but so far no one has been able to get the ball in the first place against the Lobos. BYU's Cougars rebounded so poorly that Fairchild, who was averaging better than 11 a game, was able to snare only six, and that took care of BYU's fast-break game.
In trying to force its own fast-break tempo on the game, BYU also planned to upset New Mexico's methodical pace by pressuring its source, Kruzich. "This New Mexico kind of offense," said BYU Assistant Pete Witbeck before the game, "relies on the type of smart boy that Kruzich is. If we can force him, we may change their whole style." Coach Watts assigned his best defensive player, Guard Dick Nemelka, to handle Kruzich, and the plan worked at first. Nemelka drove Kruzich constantly to the left and so harassed him—New Mexico style—in straight one-on-one situations that he stole the ball twice. But the Brigham Young defense inside was nowhere near as stringent, and eventually Kruzich was able to move the ball in.
"Nemelka was good. He's real tough," Kruzich said afterward, "but the rest of them didn't seem to care too much for defense. I could see Daniels in there, feeling Fairchild on him and then simply rolling the other way. Mel would just stick a hand up then, and it was easy to spot him the ball."
Fairchild did not seem to enjoy the multitude of Lobos underneath. Early in the game he sank five beautiful baskets within a period of less than three minutes to bring Brigham Young from behind at 10-13 to ahead 21-17. But as sparkling as he was offensively during this stretch, he twice fouled Daniels and twice let him make baskets, so that New Mexico stayed in the game. Morgan, who was guarding Fairchild, suddenly got meaner on defense, and from then on the Cougars' graceful big man got only six more shots and made only two of them. On the other hand, the Lobos' big men, Daniels and Morgan, had no trouble getting the ball. Daniels, who was guarded by Fairchild, led everyone with 25 points and 11 rebounds. The Lobos made 36 baskets, and 21 of them were simple layups or tap-ins.
Brigham Young held on into the second half, mostly because of good shooting. The Cougars made 17 of 35 shots in the first 22 minutes, and then caved in. The rest of the way they were seven for 26. "That's the way a good defensive team will do it to you," Watts said afterward. "They'll get you out of your pattern, and then you start taking the really bad shots."
Shaking New Mexico is a bit more difficult. Only once all last year, in the finals of the National Invitational Tournament, were the Lobos really beaten—Bradley swamped them 86-54. "You know how we caught on on this campus?" Kruzich asked. "Nobody even talks about that game. They act like it just never happened. I guess they all figure we had 28 good games, so we had one bad one coming. They don't talk about that game. But we really want to go back to New York. We got there last year and we were walking around and people said, 'Oh, New Mexico. You play basketball out there?' Well, we showed them. We even got to be everybody's favorite. Oh man, do we want to go back to that NIT! You know what it is, a lot of it? Dick and me, we're the only ones who started on that team, and the other guys, the sophomores, all they hear about is that great New Mexico team of last year. But it doesn't mean much, because they weren't a part of it. You know what they want? They want to overcome that team. And Dick and I are all for that. We're on this team now. We'd like to be remembered for this one now."
At most schools, once the team beats a couple of rinky-dinks, the students start screaming: "We're No. 1." At New Mexico, where all this winning is new, the cheer is a modest "We want in—the top 10." Which is very reasonable. The night before the Brigham Young game, a fraternity held New Mexico's very first basketball rally. It was well advertised and complete with a Cougar effigy that was burned, but still only about 50 people showed up and a lot of them were hanging around the frat house anyway. Kruzich dropped by because his girl, Sandra Marshall, is head of the Chaparrals, the girl cheerleaders. He looked around at the slim gathering. "I guess it's just hard to get traditions so quickly," he said, "when you've only been having champions for a couple of years."