The Pit awakens in July for TBT Regional - Albuquerque Journal

The Pit awakens in July for TBT Regional

Harrison Kitchen, with The Basketball Tournament, sets up the large bracket banner that will be on display courtside in the Pit this week for the eight-team TBT New Mexico Regional. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

The familiar faces will be there.

Former Lobos like Roman Martinez, Anthony Mathis, Dairese Gary, J.R. Giddens, even Kenny Thomas will be a part of The Enchantment team.

And the rivals from down the road look forward to trying to ruin the Pit party on Monday night with former NMSU Aggie players like Zach Lofton, Justin Hawkins, Ian Baker and even Billy Keys a part of the Panamaniacs team set to play Enchantment at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.

But they aren’t the only ones familiar with the Pit as the $1 million, winner-take-all TBT (The Basketball Tournament) tips off on Monday in the New Mexico Regional portion of the 64-team, single-elimination tournament that has grown in popularity each summer for the past decade.

“I just remember the fans there are ridiculous. They were some of the craziest fans I’ve ever played in front of,” said Marvelle Harris, who is playing for Challenge ALS and was the 2016 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year at Fresno State, where he went 1-2 against the Lobos in the Pit.

“But what I remember is it’s not just the student section right by our bench, it’s the old people that make it. The student section isn’t that big, it’s more of like the older people. I’m like, what’s going on?”

The eight-team TBT New Mexico regional, an event a year in the making by TBT organizers, the UNM Athletic Department and Enchantment co-general managers Brandon Mason and Ryan Berryman, tips off with four games Monday, including the 8 p.m. headliner game of the No. 4 seed Enchantment, a team of mostly former UNM Lobo players, hosting the No. 5 seed Panamaniacs, a team of mostly former NMSU Aggies players.

The first three games — set for 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 6 p.m., all with tickets available on site or online at GoLobos.com/TBT — feature six teams also familiar with the Pit like Harris, who despite losing in his first two trips to Albuquerque with the Bulldogs, went off the last time he played in the arena with 32 points and 10 assists on Feb. 27, 2016, in the only Fresno State win over the Lobos in the Pit in Harris’ college career.

Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas looks to shoot the ball during Saturday’s practice in the Pit for The Enchantment, the team of mostly former UNM Lobo players, ahead of this week’s TBT Regional in the Pit. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

The MWC’s 2015 Mountain West Player of the Year, Derrick Marks, is also in this week’s event playing for Once a Bronco, a team comprised mostly of former Boise State Bronco players.

He was 0-3 in the Pit before his senior season game when he went for 31 points and was 10-of-11 at the free throw line to beat the Lobos on Jan. 18, 2015.

“One thing I remember about the Pit is the crowd always been so into it,” Marks said. “It was one of the gyms I like playing at the most just because their fans are so into it.”

The Colorado State Rams also have an alumni team in the regional — Ram Up — that features numerous players familiar with the venue.

But for the Lobos, and even to the Aggies, the hope this week is a home court, or at least home state, advantage can get them a step closer to the $1 million prize that’s up for grabs later this month in Dayton, Ohio.

33-POINT CHAMP, AGAIN: For the second year in a row, Anthony Mathis won the 33-point contest at the regional his team, The Enchantment, played at.

A year ago, Mathis won in Wichita but then couldn’t attend the finals after he signed with a G-League team and had scheduling conflicts.

Sunday, Mathis had a first round knockout of former Aggie and current Panamaniacs guard Terrell Brown (11-9) and then he was a perfect 11-for-11 in his second round win over Heartfire’s Eric Washington (11-5). In the final, Mathis knocked off Challenge ALS’ Jeff Ledbetter, 11-9, to again advance to the Dayton, Ohio, finals.

The format of the 33-point contest — yes, 33 — is this: One player from all 64 teams in the tournament gets put in his own 64-player bracket and plays head to head at each region with one winner from each of the eight regions advancing to Dayton. The two players start in the middle of the court with a ball and choose one rebounder to help them. First one to 11-made 3-pointers — hence 33 points — wins the round.

RO SHOW BACK: Roman Martinez, who starred for the Lobos from 2006-2010, said playing in TBT last year with Enchantment gave him the itch to play again.

The 34-year-old, who hasn’t played professionally in five years, got in shape this past year, had a tryout last week in Mexico and said he plans to sign a contract to play professionally again this season in Mexico.

“It’s the timing for me. I’ve been working tech sales for a while and I’ve been getting in shape since December, and I just feel it’s a good time to do it again for me,” Martinez said. “… (Last year’s TBT) was big in getting me wanting to play again, especially being around this group and my teammates.”

DAIRESE BACK, TOO: Like Martinez, the Enchantment’s TBT debut a year ago got former Lobo Dairese Gary, the four-year starting point guard from 2007-2011, thinking he might want to run it back with his teammates.

The problem there was he weighed 260-pounds when he played in an alumni game in Albuquerque last summer.

Since then, he’s dropped 40 pounds while training kids and coaching high school basketball in his home state of Indiana. He’s back to looking like the same bulldog-type bruiser point guard he used to be, even if he might not be able to go quite as hard as he once did for the Lobos.

“I can’t give ‘em 40 (minutes) a night,” Gary said, “but whatever minutes they have me on the floor, I’m ready. I’m going to go all out and I can’t wait.”

Former Lobo Joe Furstinger runs through plays as The Enchantment, the team of mostly former UNM Lobo players, practiced in the Pit on Saturday. They play the Panamaniacs (NMSU alumni) on Monday. (Chancey Bush/Albuquerque Journal)

UKRAINE UPDATE: Three former Lobos who fled Ukraine when it was attacked by Russia in February are playing in TBT: Joe Furstinger and Drew Gordon with the Enchantment and Troy Simons with Ohio 1804, a team of mostly University of Ohio alumni that plays its first round game in the Dayton regional July 24.

Furstinger, who fled Ternopil, Ukraine, as the pre-dawn raids were beginning and spent the entire day with two teammates trying to get out of the country, told the Journal in February it was “the craziest day of my life.”

Saturday, in the more comfortable surroundings of the Pit, the former Lobo said once he was able to get out of the country, he went home to Orange County, California, for a couple of weeks after the attacks before signing a new contract to play the rest of the season for a team in Puerto Rico.

ELAM ENDING: For those experiencing TBT for the first time, the most notable format change to know is the Elam Ending.

The unique rule twist is aimed at preventing the end of games from becoming boring foul fests with a trailing team desperately trying to stop the clock.

At the first dead ball under the 4 minute mark in the fourth quarter, a target score eight points higher than the score of the leading team is established. Then the game is played to that score with every game ended on a made shot, not a buzzer.

For instance, if a team is leading 80-75 at that dead ball, the Elam Ending target score would be set to 88, and the first team to reach that total wins.

DAY 1 SCHEDULE: Here is the Monday schedule of games in the Pit:

• Game 1: LA Cheaters vs. Ram Up (Colorado State alumni), 1 p.m.
• Game 2: Challenge ALS vs. Once a Bronco (Boise State alumni), 3 p.m.
• Game 3: Heartfire vs. Competitive Choice, 6 p.m.
• Game 4: The Enchantment (UNM alumni) vs. Panamaniacs (NMSU alumni), 8 p.m., ESPNU
(All games on 101.7 FM; TV where noted)

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