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The Sweet 16 that never happened

The New Mexico State men’s basketball team has a rich and storied history: A 1970 Final Four appearance that ended in a tough loss to John Wooden and UCLA, the glorious ‘80s under Neil McCarthy that saw the team develop a heated rivalry with national power UNLV, and a 2007 team, led by a former NBA star Reggie Theus, that knocked off a top-15 Nevada team and won the WAC championship.

If you were to walk into the Pan American Center today, you would see banners commemorating all the great teams in NMSU history. The 1937 team that reeled off a school record-setting 22 straight wins and a Border Conference victory has a beautiful new banner. Lou Henson’s 779 career wins hang in the rafters to match his name and signature on the parquet floor of the court named after him. But if you know anything about NMSU basketball, you know there’s one thing missing: A 1992 Sweet 16 banner.

There’s no doubt about it. It happened. Neil McCarthy coached the Aggies to a 19-7 record and the No. 3 seed in the Big West Conference tournament. NMSU went on to defeat Fresno State 86-85 in overtime in the quarterfinals and tournament host Long Beach State 80-72 in the semis, and squeaked past Pacific 74-73 to win the conference championship title and qualify for the Big Dance.

The 1992 NMSU men’s basketball team poses for a photo inside the Pan American Center. (NMSU Photo)

“We just got hot at the right time and we rode that three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season into the conference tournament,” recalled starting shooting guard William Benjamin, now the Las Cruces High School boys’ basketball head coach. “As a senior, we knew we did not want our season to end early. Our goal the whole year was to make the NCAA tournament, and it just added to our sense of urgency. I think that’s how we won those two one-point games in the conference tourney. We just didn’t want to go out like that.”

Benjamin averaged 10.1 points per game, which was fourth on the team. Point guard Sam Crawford averaged a team-high 12.9 points per game and 9.9 assists. Going into the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed in the West bracket, the odds were stacked against the Aggies to even win one game, but the team believed the tough conference schedule prepared them for a solid DePaul team.

“Having to battle against Tark (Jerry Tarkanian) and UNLV in conference play, we knew we would not see too many teams better than that in the NCAA tournament,” Benjamin said. “DePaul was really good. The Big East was really damn good in those days, so we knew we would have to play a perfect game, and that’s what we did, basically.”

The Aggies scored an upset of the No. 5 seed Blue Demons 81-73. Instead of playing No. 4 seed Oklahoma, the Aggies would face No. 13 Louisiana-Lafayette, a team that upended the Sooners 87-83 to advance.

NMSU defeated the Ragin’ Cajuns 81-73 to advance to the regionals, and faced the top-ranked UCLA Bruins the next weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in front of a very pro-Aggie crowd inside The Pit. The Cinderella Aggies hung tough, but fell to the Bruins 85-78, ending NMSU’s magical run with a 25-8 record.

McCarthy coached at NMSU for six more years before resigning as head coach and assistant athletic director. An investigation was eventually conducted in response to accusations that some of McCarthy’s assistants helped a couple of players on exams. As a result, NMSU was placed on probation for academic misconduct and had to vacate the Sweet 16 appearance.

“The NCAA punished McCarthy and his assistants fairly and firmly, (but) to take away from what that team did, it’s wrong, honestly,” said Eric Bernal, an NMSU alumnus and Aggie basketball season ticket holder. “UNM has not been to a Sweet 16 ever, and the ’92 (team) pulled off an incredible run. You shouldn’t punish those guys and that team for something that they did not control.”

NMSU has not made it to the Sweet 16 since the 1992 run, and though fans have requested official recognition for the team, current NMSU Director of Athletics Mario Moccia cannot go forward with hanging a banner since that year’s post-season appearance was stripped away by the NCAA.

“The NCAA continues to make so many kids who had nothing to do with the mistakes of a select few suffer,” said David Mares, a 21-year-old junior who is a member of the Panamaniacs, the basketball student section club. “They did this to Michigan with the Fab Five, Penn State and USC. Those schools at least have other things to hang their hat on. (At) NMSU, the Final Four and Sweet 16 are all there is to be proud of. It’s terrible that the school cannot acknowledge it.”

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