No. 6 Nevada, which sent Lobos spiralling two years ago, returning to Pit
The long and detailed history of The Pit should have (but, sadly doesn’t) a separate wing that pays respects to some of the University of New Mexico’s most painful losses.
Toss the stunning 1991 upset to Eastern New Mexico in there with the infamous Paper Cup game against UTEP from 1986 and the 1976 loss to UNLV and the announced crowd of 19,452 — a crowd that some say was well above 20,000.
Maybe include the 1989 NIT implosion against Saint Louis or the 1968 NCAA Tournament letdown against Santa Clara, a loss that cost the Lobos a shot at mighty UCLA the next night.
Inside that wing should be a special section for the night of Jan. 7, 2017. It’s a fresh memory whose wound is still raw with Lobo fans everywhere, a night where Nevada erased a massive second half deficit to stun the Lobos, 105-104, in overtime on national television.
Sam Logwood drained a 3-pointer with 11 minutes left to put the Lobos up 74-49. Fans were streaming out the doors. Game over.
With just over a minute left, it was 90-76, It was a six-point game in the final 30 seconds.
The loss sent the Lobos on a spiral they’ve yet to recover from. They’re 34-28 since that night, having said adios to then-head coach Craig Neal and hello to a roster that has just two players – seniors Anthony Mathis and Dane Kuiper – left from that night.
Nevada has gone the opposite direction, posting a 44-12 record and skyrocketing to 14-0 this season and the nation’s No. 6 ranking. The Wolf Pack boast an NBA-ready roster that has five fifth-year seniors in the starting lineup. Their head coach, Eric Musselman, is rumored to be a candidate for the vacancy at UCLA.
On Saturday, Nevada returns to The Pit for the first time since that incredible rally. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. and ticket sales suggest it could be one of the biggest crowds in years.
UNM head coach Paul Weir is banking on the energy of The Pit to help his team navigate its way against one of the best teams in the country. On Friday, he put his team through its final paces, stressing get-back defense in the press and zone responsibilities to prevent snipers like Jazz Johnson, Jordan Caroline and Caleb Martin firing away from the outside, or big man Trey Porter having his way inside against UNM’s three-headed post giants of Carlton Bragg, Vladimir Pinchuk and Corey Manigault.
“That’s what makes them so good is how many different weapons they have,” Weir said. “If it was just Caroline, you could talk about that, but they have so many different weapons on the team and so many ways; Porter in the paint, the Martin brothers on the perimeter, Johnson 3 [and] someone like Caroline, who’s doing it at all kinds of levels. It allows each one of them to kind of showcase themselves depending on the game.”
Lobo fans can never forget Caroline, a senior who blistered their team for 45 points in 43 minutes the last time he was in Albuquerque. It was his 3-pointer just 11 seconds after Logwood’s 3 that kick-started the Pack’s rally and it was his incredible banked 3 with 27 seconds left that made it a one-possession game and sent media types scrambling to find the words to describe what they were seeing.
Weir said there’s been little talk about what happened two years ago. With all the player and staff turnover, it’s ancient history to the people here now.
What concerns him is what Nevada does best. The Wolf Pack chokes teams with relentless defense, spreads them out with pro-level talent at virtually every position and never quits no matter how far they’re down. Twice this season, they’ve overcome deficits of at least 12 points.
“They can really get going if we turn the basketball over,” Weir said. “For us, first and foremost, is we have to value the ball.”
The Pack forced 20 turnovers in Wednesday’s win against Utah State. Weir said anything close to that means the Lobos have zero chance of the upset.
What he’s banking on is the team’s just completed hiatus from Albuquerque as a means to light a fire and get the Lobos playing up to their potential. The team’s recent road swing took them to three states for two games over a five-day span. Weir said it was probably the thing the team need to feel more connected and unified.
“We had a terrific road trip,” he said. “The opportunity to kind of get out of here for a few days, away from here, away from what goes on here, get on the road. We practiced 2-3 times a day, we watched film 2-3 times a day. I thought we really grew. We spent a lot of time together and I think it showed up in the Air Force game.”
To pull off one of the biggest upsets in program history, and in some ways help ease the pain of what happened two years ago, the Lobos will take anything they can get.
505 por vida: Saturday is “We Are New Mexico Night” in The Pit. The school is honoring the state, and the Lobos will wear special yellow uniforms.
UNM officials were being tight-lipped about what the kits look like, but a hint came on social media early Friday when the team’s official Instagram account injected some color into its avatar. When asked about it after Friday’s practice, Weir turned and pointed up toward the New Mexico flag at the south end of the arena and said the uniforms look “a lot like the flag.”
Healthy again: Lobos backup point guard Erik McGee has missed two straight games while battling a cold. He was back at practice Friday and is expected to play against Nevada.
Road warriors: Road teams won three of the five Mountain West Conference games during Wednesday’s opening night. That included UNM’s win at Air Force. The exceptions were Nevada’s rout of Utah State and UNLV’s last second-win over Colorado State.
Mountain West game: Nevada (14-0, 1-0 MWC) at New Mexico (7-6, 1-0), 6 p.m. in The Pit.
Radio: KKOB-AM 770)
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