GREATEST MOMENTS | Picture this: New Mexico State made Final Four run in 1970


New-Mexico-State-greatest1The photo on the wall behind Lou Henson’s desk captured the defining moment of his career and the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.

It was a picture of the 1969-70 Aggies, the first and only New Mexico college basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four.

Henson, who played at New Mexico State in the 1950s, became head coach in 1966. He recruited and coached the only five players in New Mexico State history to earn All-America honors. Three played on the Aggies’ 1969-70 team — Jimmy Collins, Charlie Criss and Sam Lacey.

That trio, which went on to play in the NBA, led the Aggies’ to the 1970 Final Four. The Aggies were so good that season (27-3), Sports Illustrated pegged them to win the Midwest Regional:

The choice in the Midwest is New Mexico State, which has size and strength inside with 6’10” Sam Lacey and 6’8″ Jeff Smith, and three hot-shooting, flashy guards, [Jimmy] Collins, Charlie Criss and Milton (Roadrunner) Home. Home comes in off the bench and throws nifty passes, some of which land in the pep band’s tuba. The Aggies’ biggest asset, though, is the fact that, for the first time in three years, they do not have to play UCLA in the West Regional.

Like most teams, the Aggies had come up short against UCLA, losing to the Bruins two years in a row in the West Regional. In 1970, the Aggies beat Rice (101-77), Kansas State (70-66) and Drake (87-78) to win the Midwest Regional. Collins scored 26 points in the regional final as the Aggies advanced to the Final Four.

That’s where the Aggies ran into UCLA.

Lacey, who averaged nearly 18 points and 16 rebounds as a senior, injured an ankle early against the Bruins in the semifinals and scored only 8 points. The Bruins, led by Henry Bibby, Curtis Rowe, and Sidney Wicks, defeated the Aggies, 93-77. They went on to win their fourth of seven consecutive national championships.

“Had it not been for UCLA having such a great team,” Henson said, “we had a chance to win the NCAA championship. That Final Four we had tremendous guards in Charlie Criss and Jimmy Collins. And then, of course, our post players Sam Lacey and John Burgess were outstanding players.”

Criss, the first All-American in school history in the 1968-69 season, helped the Aggies to consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

Collins, the only three-time first-team All-American in school history, averaged 24.3 points per game in 1969-70. Drafted by the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, he left as the school’s third all-time leading scorer with 1,734 career points.

Lacey, who was named to the Midwest Regional All-Tournament team during the Aggies’ Final Four run, still holds the school record for career rebounds with 1,265. Drafted by the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings) he left as the Aggies’ seventh all-time scorer with 1,448 career points.

Henson left New Mexico State in 1975 for Illinois, leading them to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances and the 1989 Final Four. He’s one of 14 coaches to lead two schools to the Final Four.

He returned to the Aggies in 1998 and retired as the all-time winningest head coach at New Mexico State (289) and Illinois (490).

Quite a career picture.

New Mexico State’s web site summed up in 2005: “He left New Mexico State as a hero, returned as a savior and retired as a legend.”


• US Bank/NM State Athletics Hall of Fame

On the cover and above: New Mexico State’s 1969-70 basketball team that reach the Final Four. (Courtesy New Mexico State University Archives)

Monday: New Mexico State and New Orleans
Tuesday: Nicholls and UNC Asheville
Wednesday: UNC Greensboro and UNC Wilmington
Thursday: North Dakota and Northeastern
Friday: Northern Illinois and Northern Kentucky

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.