By the time the UTEP lead had reached 25 points Friday night in the Huntsman Center, the idea of going back to selling toilet goods was undoubtedly beginning to look interesting to New Mexico Coach Dave Bliss.
The Lobos had run into The Bear of UTEP.New Mexico got outscored 14-0 and 11-0 on two separate runs as UTEP buried the Lobos 89-57 in the semifinal round of the WAC tournament. The crowning slap came at the buzzer when Miner guard Tim Hardaway, giving in to the urgings of the crowd, let loose a 30-foot shot that hit dead center.
The loss was by far the largest margin of defeat Bliss suffered in his first year at New Mexico. It was the largest UTEP margin of victory over a Lobo team in the 60 years they have been playing.
"I'm just hoping they'll let us back in Albuquerque," said Bliss.
UTEP, 24-6, moves on to tonight's 8 p.m. championship game against Colorado State. It will mark UTEP's fifth visit to the WAC tournament finals in six years.
What was supposed to be a closely contested thriller turned cold early in the second half as Hardaway directed the Miners through their motions. Big Greg Foster, the enigmatic 7-foot UTEP
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center who transferred from UCLA, stamped his number on the inside of the key, taking in 11 rebounds and scoring 15 points. Forward Mark McCall, a 6-2 player who leaps well enough to be called "Star Man" by teammates, made seven of 10 shots to score 16 points. And, as usual, Hardaway dictated the pace and tone of the game, scoring 28 points. He also contributed two steals and dished off eight assists in 37 minutes.
Moments after the victory, Haskins appeared ready to suppress a giggle. "I don't really remember when we played that well," he said.
Curiously, there was no strong indication of an impeding blowout. The teams had split during the regular season, New Mexico winning by three in Albuquerque and losing by 13 in El Paso. On a neutral court with NCAA invitations waiting to be made, it seemed unlikely that either team would get a big win.
The early moments were all New Mexico's as forward Charlie Thomas put in two quick baskets and the Lobos went ahead 7-2. But the Miners quickly picked up the tempo and, led by Hardaway, roared off 14 consecutive points for a 16-7 lead.
New Mexico was never able to close the lead to fewer than six points in the half.
Midway through the first half Bliss wore out his welcome on the officials by stepping onto the court to complain about a lack of calls. "There was only one whistle out there," said Bliss.
Although Miner Prince Stewart missed both free throws, the stage had been set. UTEP clamped down defensively on inside players Luc Longley and Charlie Thomas, and by the break they were holding a 44-34 lead.
Miner Antonio Davis went down with an injured knee early in the second half, but it did little to stem the tide. When Thomas blew an easy shot underneath, UTEP's Foster followed with a basket and free throw to put the Miners ahead 53-39. New Mexico wouldn't get closer than 12 points.
The Miners began stalling from the seven-minute mark.
After the game, Bliss, who once worked for a half-year selling toilet goods for Proctor and Gamble, sat tersely in an interview room and talked about his team's collapse. He didn't have on his Colgate smile.
New Mexico shot a miserable 40 percent from the field and made just 62 percent of their freee throws. UTEP out-rebounded the Lobos 40-28.
"Every team goes through a game where they just don't get it together and this was our game tonight. We haven't had a game like this all season," said Bliss.
The loss left the Lobos at 20-10 on the year and likely kept them from an NCAA bid. At least that's the way Bliss appeared to see it. When Albuquerque television reporter Mike Powers began to ask Bliss a question, he was cut off. "What do you need Mike?" said Bliss. "Ask me that idiotic question that you guys have been waiting for - how long? - to ask me. Go ahead. You ask me and I'll answer it."
Powers said, "Your feelings about the NCAA's . . ."
"That's the question, folks," retorted Bliss.
Meanwhile, The Bear was philosphical about making another trip to the WAC finals. "You don't expect the ball to go in the basket all the time," he said. "Maybe tomorrow night nothing will fall."