Greg Heiar admitted this past week that he, most of his staff and most of his roster simply didn’t know what they were getting into last weekend in El Paso.
A hostile, announced Don Haskins Center crowd of 11,315 helped create the type of rivalry environment few, if any, of the New Mexico State Aggies were ready to be in, leading to a 67-64 victory for the UTEP Miners.
“Now I know. And now we know,” Heiar said Wednesday in NMSU’s weekly coaches radio show. “And we understand the rivalry. Not only did we get to play it in Game 2, we get to play it in Game 3 on the road, so it don’t get any easier.”
Saturday night, with a week of rivalry preparation under their belts and what UNM officials are confident will be at least a crowd of 14,000 — they are hopeful for one of 15,000 — the Aggies hope to stomp out any attempt by the Lobos and their fans to get the better of them.
Adding some fuel to the rivalry flames for Lobo fans is the memory of the Aggies’ Dec. 6, 2021, overtime victory in the Pit that was followed by an emphatic court stomping on the Lobos logo at center court by Aggies players. They later said it was in response to UNM’s Jaelen House having mimicked a kick of the Pistol Pete logo in the Pan American Center a week prior at the end of UNM’s win in Las Cruces.
FINAL: New Mexico State 78, New Mexico 76 (OT)
• NMSU circus shot goes in at buzzer then Aggies stomp on Lobo at center court. AD Eddie Nuñez goes out there to get them off.
• Series splits 1-1 pic.twitter.com/rGy5TZi76K
— Geoff Grammer (@GeoffGrammer) December 7, 2021
For their part, the Lobos certainly remember how last year’s game ended. But they aren’t taking any media bait to suggest it’s anything they really care about or will use as motivation.
“It doesn’t get mentioned at all because one, they have a brand new team this year, so the players that did what they did last year, most of them aren’t there,” said UNM junior guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. “And then obviously … this is a game that we want to just focus on what we can control and that’s what we are working on in practice.”
Pitino added when he was asked about the incident “If you don’t want somebody to do something like that, don’t let them beat you.”
Whatever the case, whether it be last year’s rivalry renewal thanks to each team winning on the other’s court, the postgame celebration in the Pit, or just the fact that the Lobos are 3-0 and coming off an inmpressive 21-point road win at SMU on Tuesday, there is no denying there is a buzz about this game. It’s more than welcome for a UNM men’s basketball program that once boasted regularly about selling its home arena out, something that hasn’t happened since the 2014-15 season.
In fact, since the last announced sellout of 15,411 fans in the Pit — Hugh Greenwood’s senior night on March 7, 2015 — the arena has had just one game reach 15,000 and just three others break 14,000:
■ 15,362 — NMSU (Dec. 16, 2015)
■ 14,540 — San Diego State (March 1, 2016)
■ 14,488 — NMSU (Dec. 14, 2019)
■ 14,393 — NMSU (Nov. 17, 2018)
Whether wise or not in an era where college basketball attendance across the country is dropping, Pitino has never shied away from saying those days are what he hopes to get the program back to. And he makes no bones about how that has to happen. Win.
“I always believe in order to get the fans back, the games are the key,” Pitino said. “Not that barnstorming throughout the state isn’t big, and getting out and shaking hands, kissing babies and doing all that. The games are what really matter. And I think if you’ve watched all three games (UNM has played this season), you see the potential. You see that our guys play hard. They compete. They’re really good guys. They’re really good representatives of the basketball program to the community. So they’re an easy group to cheer for. …
“We all want to play back in front of a sold-out Pit. That’s why I took the job. It’s why every player that comes here — we say it over and over again — but that’s why they come here. They come here because they know the community cares about Lobo basketball. Well, the last eight years, it’s gone away a little bit. … Hopefully we’ve got a good team, we can get the town buzzing again about Lobo basketball. So, Saturday selling it out? Yeah, that’d be a step in the right direction, but we want to get to a point where we’re selling everything out.”
TICKETS: Tickets for Saturday’s game can be purchased online (GoLobos.com/tickets) or in person at the UNM ticket office at the Pit, which opens, as do gates to the arena before the game, at 3:30 p.m.