- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - After five seasons and an ouster from the Women’s Basketball Invitational this week, New Mexico fired women’s basketball coach Yvonne Sanchez in a move the coach says “blindsided” her.

Vice President for Athletics Paul Krebs announced the decision at a press conference Friday and said it came after he didn’t see a “trend” toward a championship for the team.

New Mexico athletics spokesman Frank Mercogliano said Sanchez was informed of the decision at a meeting Friday morning with Krebs and Janice Ruggiero, who oversees the women’s basketball program.

“We’ve taken a step back this year,” said Krebs. “I don’t think our program is where it’s needed to be.”

New Mexico (17-15) fell in the first round of the Women’s Basketball Invitational 75-67 to Weber State on Wednesday. They finished the regular season with a fifth place finish (9-9) in the Mountain West.

Sanchez had a 77-81 record in five seasons as New Mexico’s head coach.

She joined the staff in 2000.

A popular figure in Albuquerque and a native of New Mexico, Sanchez was routinely lauded in the state with the nation’s highest percentage of Hispanic residents, though the team only finished as high as second place once.

During an emotional news conference Friday afternoon, Sanchez said Krebs handed her an envelope that morning and told her she was being terminated. She said the school then sent text messages to players about her firing before she could speak to them.

“I can accept being fired,” Sanchez said. “The way it was handled is just mindboggling.”

Ralph Arellanes, chair of the Hispano Round Table of New Mexico, a civil rights group in the state, blasted the decision to fire Sanchez and suggested race played a factor.

“Coach Sanchez is a class act and she just won the Mountain West Conference Coach of the Year for 2014-2015,” Arellanes said. “The long tradition of UNM removing high performing and highly recognized Hispanos in all areas must stop or be prepared for strong consequences.”

Arellanes questioned why New Mexico didn’t fire men’s basketball coach Craig Neal, who is white and who came under heavy criticism this year for not making the NCAA tournament.

Krebs, who hired Sanchez, did not directly address the comments from Arellanes but said he understood why some might struggle with the school’s decision to terminate Sanchez. “We need to compete on a championship level and we didn’t see a trend in that direction,” Krebs said.

Asked if race or gender played a factor in her firing, Sanchez said she found it “interesting” that male coaches at New Mexico have been given more leeway and time to rebuild programs.

“I will address some of that in the future,” she said.

___

Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/russell-contreras .

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