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Lobos' Streak on Line

The Pit.

There is a reason Sports Illustrated once named it as one of the top 20 athletic venues in the world.

There is a reason it is one of the most feared places in college basketball.

Men: San Diego State at UNM, 8 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network (DirecTV 613, Comcast 274, Dish 152)
Radio: KKOB-AM (770)

There is a reason, well, it’s called the Pit.

While many of those reasons have been tough to remember the past two seasons, they will be on display in full frenetic, fanatic fashion when the New Mexico Lobos (15-2, 1-0 MWC) play host to 16th-ranked San Diego State (15-2, 1-0) in a huge Mountain West men’s basketball game tonight.

As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, UNM said only 140 club-level tickets remained, and those seats were going on sale online at half price (from $100 to $50).

“We always enjoy playing in front of the best fans in the country,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “We are looking forward to a great atmosphere.”

Only once this season has the Pit really rocked – when the Lobos beat Saint Louis and former Utah coach Rick Majerus 64-60 last month. But apart from that contest and a loss to New Mexico State, UNM has rolled at home – winning its other six games by an average of 37.8 points – leading to some pretty subdued atmospheres.

That all changes this evening when SDSU, fresh off a thrilling 69-67 home victory over then-No. 12 UNLV in its MWC opener Saturday, hits the floor.

But while the Lobos look to take down a nationally ranked league foe, they know they aren’t exactly flying under the radar themselves.

“There’s a target on our back,” said UNM junior point guard Jamal Fenton.

The Lobos’ 13-game tear is the third-longest in the nation after previously unbeaten Baylor lost to Kansas on Monday night.

Only Syracuse and Murray State, the nation’s last two unbeatens, have longer runs.

What makes this week even more scintillating for the Lobos is they get no time to celebrate – or pout – regardless of tonight’s outcome. On Saturday they play at 14th-ranked UNLV (16-3, 0-1). It’s the first time since the 1992-93 season the Lobos have played back-to-back games against ranked league foes.

But Alford says he’s not putting any more emphasis on these games than any others.

“When you start adding importance, and putting a bigger deal on games, then you set yourself up,” Alford says. “If you win both this week and lose both next week, where are you?”

While Alford’s goal is to keep his players level-headed, he admits there are times when they will naturally get more fired up.

Fenton says tonight – and Saturday – are such occasions.

“It’s a bigger week because of our winning streak and them just beating UNLV,” says Fenton, who has started the past two games but will probably return to his backup role if the injured Hugh Greenwood (ankle) is ready as expected tonight.

“We just want to be in the rankings with (UNLV and SDSU), so we just want to bring it.”

The Aztecs beat the Lobos twice on the way to a 34-3 record in the 2010-11 season that ended in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Steve Fisher, the national coach of the year last season, lost four starters but has SDSU rolling again. Junior guard Chase Tapley, the one returning starter, is having a standout season, as is sophomore guard Jamaal Franklin. The latter was named MWC Player of the Week and hit the game-winner with less than a second left against UNLV on Saturday.

“He continues to progress,” Fisher says of Franklin. “A year ago, I tried to talk him into redshirting in October. He thought about it, and said ‘I’d rather take my chances, even if it’s only playing in practice.’ And then, through toughness, mentally, he willed his way into the rotation by the end of the season.”

Fisher has had success in the Pit, with a 5-7 lifetime record. But he knows that it won’t be easy to chalk up another victory here tonight – especially coming off the team’s emotional home win against UNLV.

“What both teams brought, which was evident, was a whole lot of energy and tenacity,” Fisher says of Saturday’s win. “It was a very, very hard-fought basketball game in an electric environment. Our fans were as good as they’ve ever been, which is as good as anyone in the country. They helped will us to a victory.

“Now we move to New Mexico and play in the Pit, and it will be the polar-opposite for us.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal