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Rabid fan base fuels Lobo women’s team

January 22, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE

Even when it’s empty, The Pit still as a certain energy to it.

The ghosts of countless hoops dreams seem to echo through the place when it’s dead silent. Its corrugated roof and refurbished interior hold within them more amazing memories than a hard drive.

Constructed more than half a century ago, The Pit was designed as a cost-effective hole in the ground but is now a state-of-the art facility that’s nothing less than hallowed ground for college basketball devotees of all generations.

The home of the University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball program since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House, it’s also the mailing address for the Lobo women.

While the men get the lion’s share of attention, the women’s program has taken root as a perennial top 20 draw for average attendance, and on most game nights, crowds of 4,500 or more file in for a game.

“When I first saw this place, I was mind blown,” says senior Nike McClure, a starting power forward and defensive stopper who averages more blocked shots than points for the Lobo women this season. “As soon as all the fans came in, got all packed in there, I was just in shock. It was, like, ‘coach didn’t lie.’ ”

The allure of the arena is enough to get players from just about anywhere, but it’s more than that. The high-profile types still gravitate to the traditional power schools in the power conferences, but UNM is always on the radar to a certain degree for one reason — and one reason only.

“The fans,” says Mike Bradbury, UNM’s women’s head coach. “That’s it. I mean, what else is there?”

Sitting behind the desk of his bedroom-sized office in the Rudy Davalos Center — an office with a view of the practice court to his right and Albuquerque’s west mesa through the hallway windows to his left — he pauses for just a moment to ponder the answer. He offers a blue-eyed nonblinking stare as he raises his eyebrows and shrugs his shoulders for effect.

“It’s 95 percent of our recruiting pitch,” he continues. “Like, what else is there? Like, I’m serious. You live here. What else would you sell? There’s nothing. It’s the poorest state, it’s the lowest state in academics, it’s the — I mean, there’s not one positive, so you sell the fans. You know, so that’s why you use them.”

It was enough to get Aisia Robertson to leave Kansas in favor of New Mexico. She transferred in last year and leads the team in assists and steals while ranking second in scoring and third in assists. She’s a do-everything player who had it all coming out of high school when she was named a McDonald’s All-American in California.

She didn’t know much about UNM before she got here but, like most, Robertson learned quickly that Bradbury means business almost as much as the fans love the team.

“Coach is really hands-on and he doesn’t lie,” Robertson says. “A lot of coaches, they try and sugarcoat things and say this is why you’re not playing. He’s going to tell you exactly what it is and gives you the opportunity to fix it. If you choose not to fix it, then your playing time is legit your fault.”

The only in-state player on Bradbury’s roster is sophomore Jaedyn De La Cerda. She won a state championship in The Pit at Roswell High in 2016, then came to UNM to fulfill a lifelong goal shared by just about anyone who has played prep basketball here.

She has emerged as the Lobos’ top scoring threat off the bench and one of its leaders on the floor.

“I grew up wanting to be a Lobo,” De La Cerda says. “Being here in high school was great, but being a Lobo in The Pit is, yeah, something everyone in New Mexico dreams of.”

Bradbury has used the fan support to rebuild a program that was on a steady downward trajectory before he was hired from Wright State three years ago. The Lobos hit a fevered pitch under former coach Don Flanagan, the Albuquerque prep coaching legend who turned UNM women’s hoops into a turnstile giant with his penchant for fundamentals and gritty play. The team went from crowds of just a few hundred to average nights of 10,000 or more.

The Lobos made it to eight NCAA Tournaments and five WNITs in his 16 years, simultaneously raising the expectations while demonstrating that the leap from bad to good is much shorter than the jump from good to great. They made it to one Sweet 16 and to a WNIT final, but did so each time while playing tournament games in The Pit.

“What [Flanagan] did was incredible,” Bradbury says. “To get this thing up off the mat and going, to get them as good as he did — I mean, it was incredible. We’re just trying to do the best we can do.”

Flanagan’s Lobos were never able to get over that hump, and by time he reached the end of his time at UNM, he had trouble winning games and holding onto players. An entire recruiting class pulled out just before his retirement in 2011, leaving the cupboard bare for his successor, Yvonne Sanchez.

Things leveled off in what seemed like a perpetual state of rebuilding. The wins dwindled and the crowds slowly evaporated. Enter Bradbury, a Tennessee native now in his 29th year of college coaching. UNM is his eighth stop, his third as a head coach.

Given the constant change in personnel around him, this season marks the third distinct style in as many years. His first Lobos team was loaded with low post players and an alarming lack of guards. Last year’s team was infused with a four-guard lineup and one post star in current senior Jaisa Nunn, a lineup that became one of the top scoring units in the country.

The points are down just a touch this year, but the team’s 14-2 record entering Saturday’s game at Wyoming came with a roster that finally has equilibrium between the bigs and the ballhandlers.

“We’ve played three completely different styles in my three years here,” he says. “This year it’s kind of in the middle. It’s what we’ve always done. It’s not that big a deal to me.”

Stopping short of calling UNM a destination spot for the remainder of his career, Bradbury says he realized the gold mine he was sitting on — and the fishbowl he was about to enter — the moment he arrived. Coaching in obscurity for

26 years, he says people now recognize him out in public and going to the grocery store is no longer done as just another face in the crowd.

“Yeah, it’s different than it was then, for sure,” he says.

Not that he’s complaining.

The fans give the Lobos an identity and their influence is aiding in the program’s return to steady success.

It certainly helped in landing a player like McClure. Listed as a senior, that’s not entirely accurate. She graduated from Washington State last spring and was eligible to jump ship without the one-year waiting period as a graduate transfer. She began fielding calls from prospective suitors as soon as she announced her intentions. One of them was Bradbury.

Turns out, he didn’t need to dig into his recruiting budget to buy her a plane ticket. All it took was a phone call.

“I said, ‘Sounds good to me,’ and I was coming,” McClure says. “I didn’t even come on a visit; what he told me on the phone was good enough.”

With the wins piling up and his team’s Ratings Percentage Index continuing to climb, it brings with it the pressure of feeding the beast that is the fans’ expectations. UNM was No. 53 entering the weekend, the highest of any team in the Mountain West Conference.

On paper, it’s not quite high enough to garner national respect. Superficially, it’s enough to give anyone a tension headache.

It’s exactly why Bradbury chooses not to look at the ratings and focus more on the day-to-day of building the team’s résumé one game at a time.

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “If you look at that stuff daily, it’s maddening. So I don’t. All I’m concerned about is us getting prepared and doing the best we can in the next game.”

It’s one way, he says, to keep things moving in the right direction and something that comes with clarity when the crowds file out and The Pit falls silent once again.

“I love the fans here,” Bradbury says. “We do this for them. I’m serious. It’s why we do things the way we do. This place, these people deserve it.”

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