Through all the annals of great rivalry there may never have been more unwilling participants than the students and alumni of the University of New Mexico, who regard the adherents of New Mexico State with much the same respect that Tom the cat held for Jerry the mouse. Their conversations about the school to the south are only grudgingly offered, and even then contempt mingles with indifference, while smiles, chuckles and a lot of listen-you've-got-to-hear-this-one talk infiltrates the air. If Navy pulled a Pueblo every week, Army would act like this.
Last week, however, New Mexico met New Mexico State twice in basketball, back to back, your place my place, and talk came cheap. The Aggies of State were 16 and 0, undefeated, rated high up in the polls, just where New Mexico's Lobos were supposed to be, and were beginning to usurp much of the attention and territorial publicity that once belonged to UNM alone. Just as Tom took Jerry seriously only after the latter had stolen the milk, the cheese and the mousetrap, so New Mexico had to reassess its own philosophy.
Instantly, in the tunnel leading to the Aggie floor in Las Cruces that first game night, the Lobos understood all of this, and their insouciant vanity disappeared. Greg (Stretch) Howard was responsible. Waiting impatiently in line, staring at the floor, he barked, "Let's go," and pushed the teammate in front. In a moment the Lobos were rambling onto the floor, arrogant but determined, with their names and the outline of the state on their backs, their pride and domination of the game on the line. They were about to tell New Mexico State, Mi casa no es su casa. The Lobos were ready.
In the weeks leading up to this game New Mexico's preparedness was suspect. The team won the Western Athletic Conference championship last season, when it was not expected to, and defeated State twice. But in the NCAA regional tournament on its home floor in Albuquerque, New Mexico was beaten in two games, the second time by the much-ridiculed Aggies. This year, with two fine sophomores coming in, the Lobos were supposed to be winning the league easily, but they were not.
Coach Bob King soon developed problems with his three big men, Ron Sanford, sophomore Willie Long and Howard, who were moody, sulky and reluctant to share playing time. Little Petie Gibson, the 5'7" rookie playmaker, had trouble adjusting to King's deliberate offense, and the Lobos—an otherwise brobdingnagian group with little finesse—lost six road games, including their first three league contests. Further, Howard's behavior grew so erratic—among his transgressions was a traffic ticket, supposedly for driving while watching, through the rearview mirror, a TV set installed in the back seat of his car—that King, fed up, suspended him for "smoking." The Lobos were without their best player for six games (two of which they lost) until King finally took Howard back. That didn't help much—New Mexico lost three of its last four before the State games, and the team appeared finished for the year.
In Las Cruces, meanwhile, people were saying that Howard hadn't quit smoking and that King had taken it up. But Aggie partisans were much too preoccupied with their own team to dwell long on such gossip. Even considering a schedule that was more guacamole salad than red meat, New Mexico State, an independent, has had a remarkable year. Playing their first season in the sparkling, 13,000-seat Pan American Center, the Aggies had genuine talent in Slammin' Sam Lacey, the 6'9" center, and Guards Jimmy Collins and Charley Criss. Coach Lou Henson acknowledged his team's success graciously, but he was concerned about what he called King's "psychological advantages."
"We have to fit our games around theirs," he said, "but I would have thought he'd schedule us farther apart. I think King wanted to put us here to gain the advantage. Every year we play the first game in Las Cruces. It's always an advantage to go on the road first."
For last year's game in Las Cruces, UNM's Sanford was left at home with an eye injury—a fact extravagantly noted by the newspapers. To Henson, therefore, it seemed much too coincidental that on Tuesday of last week, the day before the first game, the Albuquerque papers headlined that Steve Shropshire, a starting forward for the Lobos, would not play because of a back injury.
"Here comes King again with his psychology," said Henson. "He says State could go unbeaten. He says these games aren't important to New Mexico. Now he says Shropshire can't play. They always get excuses before the game, then if they lose they've got them afterward. He goes overboard for that psychological edge. Personally, I think it's unethical."
"I know they're saying this is a pack of lies," said King, 250 miles to the north. "But my man can't even bend over. We'll be lucky to stay on the floor with New Mexico State."
Henson, whose own psychological guile had been exposed by a lie-detector test earlier this season, countered again. "The polls rate performance, not personnel. We won't beat them twice," he said. "If we split, we'll be doing well. I'm not saying this to psych anybody, but New Mexico's personnel is second only to UCLA's and maybe not even second."
Upon arrival in Las Cruces on Tuesday night, the New Mexico team—to its consummate surprise—was greeted by a large entourage from State, and it was high comedy indeed to observe the feigned laughter and superficial joy in the motel lobby as the coaching staffs and athletic officials fattened each other up. "What is this Aggie crowd doing?" New Mexico Assistant Coach Norm Ellenberger whispered to a newsman. "Get them the hell out of here."
The next evening relations were anything but cordial. With Sanford playing the high post and drawing a confused Lacey out to him, Howard scored at will inside the Aggie zone, and New Mexico went ahead early. The Aggies came within three points, 38-35, at halftime, but New Mexico scored six straight points after the break to open it up again. Henson had his team go into a man-for-man defense but, with Lacey in foul trouble, 6'8" sophomore Jeff Smith had to guard Howard.
The two worked each other over dangerously until a double foul was called with 14½ minutes left. Howard was taken out, but his replacement. Long, wanted a piece of the action. After a particularly rough rebound and while both were moving upcourt, Long turned, elbowed Smith in the neck and, in the same motion, decked him with a fast right cross to the jaw. Smith, more stunned than hurt, grabbed his face and sprawled on the floor.
That was the extent of the brawling, but it was the finish of the Aggies, too. After Long was ejected, Howard came back in and scored half of the Lobos' final 34 points. In a masterful performance he ended up with 35 points and 14 rebounds in the 86-66 victory, while Shropshire, for the record, started, played most of the game and scored 11 points.
Howard, whose emotional pitch left him in a state of hysteria throughout the evening, was still gazing at the ceiling and babbling incoherently at 4 the next morning. After he left the floor to the shouts of, "Hey, Stretch baby, have a smoke," he discussed the slugging incident. "It's lucky I was on the bench," he said. "I would have been out of this one, if Willie hadn't hit him first. We'd been elbowing together, but Smith was due for the ultimate. One more push and I would have had to lay the man down myself."
"But he was pushing all the time," said Long. "When a man has to be hit, then I'm the man who has to hit him."
For Henson, who had talked earlier of the inevitability of defeat, the effects of the first loss were not so deeply felt until the next day. "You know," he said then, "you get used to winning, and you forget how bad it feels to lose."
On Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque, the Aggies—with the exception of Lacey—finally were charged up. For the second game Henson switched 6'5" John Burgess to the backcourt on offense to free Collins in the corners, and the State zone collapsed on Howard, double-teaming him everywhere. New Mexico, in foul trouble early, could not get inside this time, and Criss and Collins shot the Aggies to a 12-point lead, 37-25. Then Sanford moved higher for shots over the zone. The Lobos, though out-scoring State by three field goals, trailed by six points at the half.
Again New Mexico came back strong in the second period. State tried to play a delay game, but the Lobos went man-to-man and made the first six points after intermission to tie the score with 16:30 to go. The Aggies struggled furiously from there. When Lacey faltered, Smith—despite a sore jaw—had to hold off the Lobos' big men by himself. Howard and Sanford tallied in close to give the home team a 66-62 lead with 30 seconds left. But Criss was fouled 12 seconds later, and after he made two free throws Collins stole a New Mexico pass off the press and fed Criss, who—amid the bedlam—jumped, shot and tied the game again.
Five seconds were left now, following a UNM time-out. The ball came to Gibson when his tall teammates failed to cut, so Petie—who wears double zero on his shirt—dribbled to the left of the circle and threw it up just as the gun sounded. The shot went in—it was Gibson's only basket of the day—and the Aggies, beaten 68-66, filed out silently, stepping over the ashes of a once-perfect season.
For New Mexico, which had shot more than 60% for the second straight game, the week delivered better omens. The Lobos won back their territory and, unlike the roadrunner, that state bird whose tail sometimes points up and sometimes down, they were uncertain of themselves no more. New Mexico would go back to its conference race with heads—and tails—up.