Look, anybody who saw UMBC, seeded No. 16, rout No. 1 Virginia last year in an NCAA Tournament first-round game can’t be surprised by anything anymore. That was the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and any school with “County” in its proper name should be playing for a high school district championship, not beating America’s presumed best college team.
Yes, Nevada has talent and swagger, and its players have been around the block, to put it kindly.
The Lobos have a two-game winning streak, the confidence that coach Paul Weir finally has figured out how best to use his talent just in time for league play, and the Pit’s home-court advantage. Just how much of an advantage is really up to you and maybe 15,000 or so others.
But you know what else the Lobos have? Let’s search the record books for clues.
Starting with the most recent, here are the last six times New Mexico has hosted a team ranked No. 6 or higher.
Let’s call it 6 vs. (No.) 6 on (Route) 66.
FEB. 22, 2014: UNM 58, No. 6 San Diego State 44
Cameron Bairstow scored 26 points in the blowout win over the Aztecs, who fell to 23-3 with the loss. SDSU coach Steve Fisher proclaimed the Lobos the best team he had faced that season — including Kansas, Marquette and Creighton.
The Lobos played the vaunted Aztecs three times that year, winning two — including the Mountain West tournament championship game. UNM finished 27-7. First-year head coach and longtime assistant Craig Neal had effectively taken the baton from Steve Alford and kept up the pace. We all presumed then that the Mountain West, like the most delicious sundae, would have (Lobo) cherry on top for many years to come.
DEC. 22, 2004: No. 5 Wake Forest 81, UNM 64
Wake Forest had this guy named Chris Paul, and he scored 23 points to lead the Demon Deacons’ second-half charge. Paul likened the atmosphere to what you’d see at then-ACC foes Maryland or Duke. Ritchie McKay’s Lobos fell to 10-2 but, led by Danny Granger, finished 26-7 and Mountain West tourney champs. Say it with me: We all presumed then that the Mountain West, like the most delicious sundae, would have (Lobo) cherry on top for many years to come.
FEB. 1, 1998: No. 14 UNM 77, No. 3 Utah 74.
A 3-pointer with 4.6 seconds left by Royce Olney, a senior from Truth or Consequences, sent the Utes to their first defeat after 18 wins. Moments earlier, Olney hit a 3 and controversially set up the dramatic finish after colliding with Utah star Andre Miller and taking the ball from him. It was the 38th straight win at home for Dave Bliss’ 16-3 Lobos. The Utes later played for the NCAA title, losing to Kentucky.
FEB. 1, 1997: No. 13 UNM 87, No. 4 Utah 71
CBS televised the game, and New Mexico unwittingly might have lost viewers because it dominated the first half. Charles Smith scored 28 points for the Lobos, who led 43-28 at intermission.
DEC. 14, 1991: No. 2 Arizona 66, UNM 54
The Wildcats obviously were loaded with talent and controlled the contest. More troubling for Lobo fans and Bliss was that it was their fifth straight loss in the Pit — a skid that included one even to Eastern New Mexico two weeks earlier.
DEC. 8, 1988: No. 6 Oklahoma 100, UNM 96
The deep, talented Sooners, “like a hockey team,” said Bliss, won a classic despite UNM’s Willie Banks, an Albuquerque freshman, going 8-of-9 from the floor and scoring 21 points.
In the next day’s Journal, columnist Rick Wright notably took exception to stupid fans who threw stuff on the court: “Would you splash a Renoir with paint remover? Would you belch in the Sistine Chapel? Would you push an old lady down a flight of stairs?”
JAN. 2, 1988: UNM 61, No. 1 Arizona 59
So if you’re counting, you’ll notice we fudged a little bit after all. This game makes seven, not six.
But this also is the rubber match, since UNM went 3-3 in the aforementioned half-dozen. And it is still regarded by some perhaps the all-time top game in the Pit.
The Wildcats had All-Americans Sean Elliott and Steve Kerr, who combined for 38 points. Coach Gary Colson’s Lobos had Jimmy Rogers, who scored 15, and Hunter Greene, who blocked Elliott’s 3-point try late to save the upset victory. So maybe that’s why UNM play-by-play Robert Portnoy calls analyst Greene “Lobo Legend” seemingly every game.
And what is to be learned from this admittedly small sample size?
Maybe nothing, really. A win Saturday most definitely wouldn’t portend a return to glory days. A loss wouldn’t portend disaster.
Except there is this: Every so often when a giant comes to Albuquerque, the Lobos come up big.
And that it’s sports, so there is hope, always.
Roll the ball out there and let’s see what happens.