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Lobos No. 3 seed

If the thousands of fans who gathered at the Pit on Sunday afternoon were disappointed by University of New Mexico’s No. 3 seed in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, they didn’t show it.

When the selection flashed on two giant screens, the rowdy crowd of about 5,000 red faithful leapt to its feet in wild applause, following the lead of the players seated on the floor.

The Lobos will meet No. 14 Harvard in Salt Lake City on Thursday in what is now classified as the second-round of the NCAA Tournament. Should the Lobos prevail as expected, they will play there again on Saturday against the Arizona-Belmont winner.

Head coach Steve Alford had said on Saturday, after beating UNLV for the Mountain West Conference tournament title, that the No. 15 Lobos had to be “in the talks” for a No. 1 seed.

But on Sunday, there were no qualms from Alford or the players, at least, about being No. 3, which matches the highest seed New Mexico ever has received.

“Really, we were all kind of saying that ‘2′ or ‘3′ would be a good spot for us,” said sophomore center Alex Kirk. “I think we’re really happy. I mean, honestly, we’re in the tournament. I think every team is happy now that they’re actually in the tournament. We’re in a great position to make a move.”

Afterward, however, some fans sounded off that the Lobos didn’t get a higher seed. The selection sets the stage for the team’s path in the championship tournament.

“We’re not getting the respect we should get,” said Marco Ortiz, 33, of Santa Fe, who carried a sign that read “In Alford We Trust” and is part of a fan group called Lobotology. “We deserve a No. 2 seed. But we’ll take it.”

Despite the sense that the team is underrated, Ortiz said he believes that UNM is strong enough to go far in the tournament.

“We’ll have our way with Harvard,” he predicted.

UNM fans from left, John White, 14, his father, Tomas White, and uncle, Carl White, show their Lobos pride at the Pit on Sunday.  (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

UNM fans from left, John White, 14, his father, Tomas White, and uncle, Carl White, show their Lobos pride at the Pit on Sunday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Steve Cook, a 1986 graduate of UNM, said he thinks the team will make it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since the field expanded to 64 (now 68) teams.

“We’ve been disappointed a lot in the past,” he said. “This is going to be the year to get over the hump and get to the Sweet Sixteen.”

A line to get into Sunday’s “Pit Party” stretched around the arena as fans waited patiently for the doors to open at 3 p.m. so they could watch the CBS “NCAA Selection Show” with the players, coaches and like-minded company. It was the first time since 2010 that the university has opened up the Pit to fans to watch the selection show.

Inside, the atmosphere was game day. Fans made their way into the stands holding signs, stopping to get concessions and buy T-shirts, hats and necklaces along the way. Intermingled with the usual sea of cherry were wigs, hats and other splashes of green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.

The show of Lobos pride wasn’t just an exercise. It had a more practical purpose, as CBS flashed to the scene at the Pit from time to time during its national show.

The Branch family — Shauna, John and 12-year-old Trinity —who purchased “The Road to Atlanta 2013” March Madness T-shirts and were donning them just before the show, said they were glad to be able to attend the Pit Party. They usually go to Las Vegas, Nev., for the Mountain West Conference tournament but didn’t make it this year.

“This is probably the best team we’ve had in my memory,” John Branch said.

The lights dimmed as players came out on to the floor to loud cheers from the audience more than a half-hour before the show aired, although instead of warming up, they settled into folding chairs set up on the court. The band played “Let’s Go Lobos,” while cheerleaders flashed “woof, woof, woof” signs.

CBS cameras were on hand to interview Alford, and announcer Robert Portnoy warned the crowd to remain quiet during the interview. Silence engulfed the arena for an eerie few minutes until the signal was given, and then the crowd went wild.

Some fans were already making plans to watch the Lobos’ first game in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Joe Tharpe, 30, said if he can get off work, he’ll make the pilgrimage.

“I think a lot of fans will go,” he predicted. “UNM travels really well.”

Daniel Romero, 16, who wore a giant red wig and said he hopes to attend UNM, waited for an autograph from guard Hugh Greenwood.

“I’m not being cocky or anything,” he said. “I think they’ll go to the Final Four.”

For that matter, so did two of CBS’s three selection show analysts, who picked the Lobos to win the West and advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.

“We understand the people’s expectations, Sweet Sixteen and all that,” said UNM junior guard Kendall Williams, “but we really do believe we can make it as far as they’re predicting. We’ve got to start with Harvard and hopefully make it to Atlanta like they predicted.”

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— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal