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Lobos win nail-biter in noisy Johnson Center in 1st round of the WBI

 

Opening night at Johnson Center proved memorable after all.

The University of New Mexico women’s basketball team pulled out an entertaining 54-51 win over North Dakota in Round 1 of the Women’s Basketball Invitational on Wednesday night in the close, noisy confines of Johnson.

What was believed to be the first official women’s college basketball game in the on-campus facility came down to the wire. With the Lobos clinging to a one-point lead, Alexa Chavez swished two free throws with 37 seconds left to help her team advance to Round 2 of the 16-team WBI.

Johnson Center will host another night of basketball when UNM (21-12) takes on Oral Roberts on Monday. The Golden Eagles defeated Texas State 57-54 in a first-round game Wednesday.

New Mexico’s first-round contest was played at Johnson because its normal home, the Pit, is hosting the PBR Ty Murray Invitational this weekend. It won’t be transformed back from rodeo venue to basketball arena in time for Monday’s second-round game.

“There’s a lot of dirt to move,” Lobo coach Yvonne Sanchez said, “but that’s okay. Playing in here tonight was pretty cool.”

Under the circumstances, Johnson Center may have provided a stronger home-court advantage than the Pit might have. The announced crowd of 1,471 seemed louder and more energetic than the same number might have at the spacious Pit.

“It felt like home,” said senior Antiesha Brown. “The fans were there, just like the Mountain West tournament (in Las Vegas, Nev.). I’ve got no complaints.”

Fans seemed to enjoy the venue, as well.

Some may have remembered seeing UNM’s men’s basketball team play at Johnson before the Pit opened in 1966, and some had been in the arena to watch Lobo volleyball on its regular home court. However, many in Wednesday’s crowd said watching a game at Johnson Center was a new experience.

“It’s my first time in the building,” said Bill Gornall, a longtime season-ticket holder, “and I’m ready to come back for a second, third or fourth if necessary. It’s fun.”

Gornall said he used the free shuttle buses UNM provided to bring fans from its football stadium parking lot to Johnson Center.

“It was super,” Gornall said. “Much easier than trying to park over here.”

Lobo women’s basketball superfan John Krist, with his cherry wig and viking helmet, made himself at home on the east baseline. He also enjoyed his first Johnson experience.

“There’s some energy in here,” Krist said. “It’s good, more personal, and the open seating is cool. First come, first-served – and I got here early.”

Basketball at Johnson Center did take a little getting used to for fans and players alike. The court is lined with wide, red boundaries for volleyball that extended roughly to the basketball free-throw lines.

“The lines were confusing at first,” Chavez said, “but you get used to it.”

The scoreboards also are designed for volleyball, so team fouls were listed under “Games Won.”

But any facility wrinkles did not seem to bother the fans, who made their presence felt when North Dakota made a late push to cut a 13-point Lobo lead to 52-51. Megan Lauck’s three-point play with 39 seconds left put a Johnson Center victory party very much in doubt.

UND quickly fouled Chavez, who hit her free throws, and the crowd rose and roared the rest of the way.

North Dakota’s Emily Evers missed two foul shots with 10.6 seconds left, but teammate Siri Burck grabbed the long rebound to give UND (17-15) a final chance. Brown then tipped the ball away from North Dakota’s Leah Szabla and UNM’s Laneah Bryan wrestled the ball out of a scrum in the final second to secure the win.

Brown finished with a team-high 12 points and said she’s looking forward to another performance at Johnson Center.

“I’m not ready to grow up yet,” she said. “This is the best year I’ve had here and I want to create a few more memories with this team.”

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