SAN DIEGO — The first question Coach Jim Brandenburg was asked seemed the obvious one.
His San Diego State basketball team, the same team that had lost its previous two games by a total of 54 points, had just beaten No. 18 New Mexico, 64-59, in a Western Athletic Conference game Thursday night.
The loss ended the Lobos' 10-game winning streak.
The question: Are you surprised?
"You mean this isn't what we're supposed to do?" Brandenburg asked, smirking. "O ye of little faith."
Then his smile grew even wider.
"You never know in the game of basketball," he continued. "If you work hard and play hard, good things will happen."
And this might have been the best thing to happen to the Aztecs (7-7, 1-2 in the WAC) and Brandenburg since he left Wyoming to take over the struggling SDSU program last March.
Not since Jan. 18, 1986, when the Aztecs defeated then-No. 17 Texas El Paso, 67-66, had they beaten a team ranked in the top 20.
"This is a great win for us," said center Mitch McMullen, who had game highs of 19 points and 8 rebounds. "We listened to the coach and played hard. We never thought they were better than us."
The Lobos (14-4, 2-1) came to the San Diego Sports Arena with their first ranking in 10 years, but they left with their first loss since Dec. 5 at Washington.
Forward Rodney Hawkins clinched the victory when he made both ends of a one-and-one with five seconds to play, after three different New Mexico players bounced three-point attempts hard off the rim in the previous 14 seconds.
The Lobos had one more desperate shot, and after that failed, the buzzer sounded, touching off a spirited midcourt celebration. The crowd of 3,594, bolstered by a sizable New Mexico delegation, was the Aztecs' largest of the season.
"I don't like to say it, but I think our players were feeling too good about themselves," said Gary Colson, New Mexico coach. "They looked at the polls and saw themselves No. 18 and started thinking they were big time."
The story of this game began in the last 25 seconds of the first half, when Lobo forward Hunter Greene rebounded a missed tap by SDSU forward Sam Johnson, and New Mexico had to hold for the final shot.
The No. 18 team in the country was having to play for the final shot against a team that had lost its first two conference games by 27 points each.
The Lobos tied the score, 31-31, with two seconds to play on a layup by 7-foot junior center Rob Loeffel after a pass from the high post by 7-1 freshman forward Luc Longley, but it could not detract from the Aztecs' inspired play in the first half.
SDSU played some of its best man-to-man defense of the season against the taller Lobos.
Charlie Thomas--who had exploited Wyoming's Fennis Dembo for 27 points and 13 rebounds in a 85-72 victory Saturday--was held to 10 points and 3 rebounds by the defense of Hawkins.
But the key might have been the Aztecs' ability to keep New Mexico from gearing up its running game. The Lobos scored sparingly off transitions and twice turned the ball over on charging fouls by point guard Darrell McGee as he led the break.
"They did a great job of controlling the tempo," Colson said. "We like to get out and go. And we couldn't do that."
The Aztecs were able to play a slow tempo despite the first-half absence of a 45-second clock. It malfunctioned beforehand, and officials at the scorer's table were forced to improvise by holding cards showing how much time remained in the possession.
The problem had Brandenburg up at the scorers table early in the game shouting for the clock to be repaired.
"How can we play a tempo without a clock?" Brandenburg shouted.
The clock was not fixed until halftime, but somehow the Aztecs managed to keep the game at pace to their liking.
The Lobos started well, taking a 13-9 lead with 12:21 to play in the half. But the Aztecs scored the next eight points to make it 17-13 at 9:16.
The second half was close the whole way. In the first 12 minutes, no team led by more than two as the lead changed hands four times and the game was tied eight times.
That changed with the help of a technical foul against Greene.
The Aztecs led, 51-49, when Greene was called for an offensive foul on guard Tony Ross. He argued the call and was accessed the technical foul. Green, the team's leading scorer, had to be restrainted by Loeffel from carrying his argument further before he was removed for the rest of the game by Colson with 7:31 to play.
"That's my rule," Colson said. "When you get a technical foul you've lost control of yourself; you've lost your cool."
Ross made the technical foul shot, and the Aztecs had the first three-point lead of the half. They stretched that to 54-49 when McMullen made a tap-in with 5:47 to play.
Thomas' 8-foot turnaround jumper at 1:39 brought the Lobos to within 60-58 before McMullen converted a one-and-one 32 seconds later to put the Aztecs ahead by four.
Loeffel then made one of two free throws with 49 seconds to play to cut the lead to 62-59.
The Aztecs had a chance to take a more secure hold on the game but Ross and Bryan Williams, the two best free-throw shooters on the team, missed the front of one-and-ones in the final 30 seconds.
Jimmy Rogers rebounded Williams' miss and hustled downcourt. But his 22-footer bounded high off the rim with 19 seconds to play. McGee missed with 16 seconds left and Rob Newton at :09. Hawkins was fouled when he grabbed the rebound.
"I knew I had to make at least that first one," said Hawkins, who had 12 points and 6 rebounds. "But I didn't think like that. I didn't think this was for the game. I just thought like it was just another shot."