LAS VEGAS, Nev. – On to Pit West.
The No. 20 New Mexico Lobos didn’t spend much time feeling sorry for themselves this week after seeing a Mountain West regular-season title slip through their fingertips over the final 11:39 of Saturday night’s loss to No. 8 San Diego State.
How could they?
The team is in Las Vegas this week where it has comfortably owned the league tournament for the past two years thanks in no small part to the thousands of Lobo fans who pour into UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center and boastfully proclaim the arena “Pit West.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” UNM first-year head coach Craig Neal, who was the team’s associate head coach the previous six seasons, said of the traveling fan support each year for the conference tournament.
“I’ve been in a Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. I’ve been in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. I’ve played at Duke for four years (as a player in college at Georgia Tech). I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament a lot as a player. I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament as a coach. Hopefully I’ll be in the NCAA Tournament as a coach this year. But that turnout, I’ve never seen (anything) like that. It’s like a red army coming through.”
A year ago, UNM beat UNLV in the MWC title game in front of 18,500 fans and, despite the game being played in Las Vegas, the fan support was clearly Lobo dominated.
Cherry-and-silver T-shirts were already infiltrating Sin City on Wednesday, with plenty of Lobo fans on hand for opening-round games in the Thomas & Mack and on casino floors around the city – especially at the South Point Casino & Hotel, which has served as the Lobos’ team hotel for the league tournament each March for several years.
Despite UNM not playing on Wednesday, several pockets of Lobo fans could be heard chanting “Everyone’s a Lobo” during the second half of Fresno State’s win over Air Force on Wednesday night.
And the comfort the Lobos have here makes turning the page on what happened in San Diego all the easier.
“We’ve got a big tournament coming up that we feel like we can still win,” UNM senior guard Kendall Williams said.
The Lobos (24-6) finished with a 15-3 league record and enter the MWC tournament as the No. 2 seed behind San Diego State. UNM played the 17-15 Bulldogs only once this season thanks to the league’s new 18-game unbalanced format.
And the one time the two teams did play – an 89-78 UNM road win Jan. 18 – wasn’t ideal for the coaching staffs to review in preparation.
“I think there was 74 free throws in that game, which is the most, I think, all year,” Neal said. “That last 10 minutes was a little weird … but anything can happen at the tournament.”
After Fresno State coach Rodney Terry’s team erased a 15-point deficit in the final six minutes to beat Air Force on Wednesday, he said his team will be ready to play against New Mexico.
“Good or bad starts, you’ve got to play this game for 40 minutes,” Terry said, before later adding he feels UNM is “one of the best teams in the country.”
Neal said getting his team to move forward after the tough loss over the weekend got easier Monday. That’s when national voters gave his team a vote of confidence, moving the Lobos up in both the The Associated Press and USA Today coaches’ polls despite the loss to the Aztecs.
“It’s good for me because I can go to my guys and say, ‘All right. It’s on now. It’s the third season,’ ” Neal said. “You’re the defending champ. You’re going there to win the tournament, then we’ll get ready for the next chapter.'”
Which is exactly what that sea of red Lobo fans came all the way to Vegas to see.