March 25, 2009
Who/What: Lobos vs. Nebraska -- 2009 WNIT
When/Where: 7 p.m., Wednesday -- Santa Ana Star Center
On The Air: 610-AM KNML
Online: GameTracker on GoLobos.com
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In a Rio Rancho arena known primarily as a home for the icy sport of hockey, the New Mexico Lobo women are hoping to find a warm and cozy home away from home.
And maybe stay there for a while.
The Lobos enter the second round of the WNIT playing Nebraska at 7 p.m. tonight (Wednesday) in the Santa Ana Star Center and if the Lobos can use this neutral site to produce a victory, the Lobos likely will be back at the Star Center later this week.
The WNIT has deemed that the winner of the Lobo/Nebraska game will play host to Oregon State in a third-round game. Since The Pit has been turned briefly into a rodeo barn and then goes into heavy-duty renovation, that means if the Lobos want to return to the Star Center, they had better be the stars of tonight's WNIT show.
Lobo coach Don Flanagan has used the analogy that the Star Center is like a mini-Vegas and he is sticking with it.
"I think it will kind of be like Vegas," said Flanagan. "A neutral site, but hopefully we'll have a lot of fans out there."
The Lobo women's drawing power in the Albuquerque area surely is a reason the WNIT had no problem allowing the Lobos to jump into Rio Rancho territory when The Pit was unavailable.
The WNIT likes warm bodies in the seats because that means cold cash in its pockets. The Star Center hold around 6,449 for basketball and the crowd for the Lobos and the Cornhuskers should be somewhere in the 2,000s.
That's not Pit numbers, but that's not bad. This week Arkansas drew 1,396 for its home game vs. Oklahoma State; Marquette drew 923 fans for a home game vs. Butler; Wisconsin had 1,169 for a visit by Kentucky.
So a 2,000-plus crowd at the Star Center is pretty darn good and there is a good chance the Lobos will double a lot of second-round WNIT numbers.
"It's a really nice arena and it's going to be a good atmosphere," said Beggin.
A crowd of 2,000-plus in a 6,000-plus arena is going to be louder and tighter than a 2,000-plus crowd in the 18,000-plus Pit. This also is a nice place. It has 26 luxury suites, 500 club seats, floor seating and a VIP lounge.
For some reason, it's also kind of neat that the Lobos have taken their hoops act to Rio Rancho. That's a community that needs to better embrace the Lobos and be better embraced by the Lobos. This also is an arena that needs to attract some new bodies from the Albuquerque area so they can see that this really isn't such a bad drive.
This could be a win-win situation for the Star Center and the Lobos, but it would be helpful if the Lobos can take care of Nebraska and return to the Star Center for a few more games.
"I'm OK with that. I'd like that," said Flanagan. "But let's do it one (game) at a time and Nebraska's the first one."
Nebraska won't be easy. The Lobos and the Huskers are looking at a rematch in Rio Rancho. UNM's 62-51 win came in The Pit on Nov. 29, but it was not as easy as the score might suggest.
The Cornhuskers have talent, depth, quickness and a little size. They got up on the Lobos early, but fell to a UNM hot streak in the second half. "I don't know if we can count on that again," said Flanagan. "They are athletic and physical and they put a lot of pressure on you. We`re pretty evenly matched."
Said Beggin: "I think they will be motivated to come in here and try to prove they can beat us. It will be really good for us if we can beat them again. "
The Huskers' pressure and athleticism bothered UNM early in the first meeting between the teams. UNM fell behind after going more than 17 minutes without a field goal in the first half. UNM was down 26-22 at the half, but rallied to lead the Huskers by as many as 22 points in the second half.
"I don't remember a whole lot of the game," said Lobo senior Amanda Adamson. "I just remember we won."
Beggin led the Lobos in that game with 19 points and Hartill had 14 points. The Lobos went on a 23-to-3 run in the second half to put away the Huskers. The Husker players might not have remembered that run a week ago, but it probably been brought to their attention.
The Lobos likely will be more fired up for this game, too. The Lobos' first-round WNIT opponent, Southern University, wasn't very impressive on paper or on the court and UNM easily spanked the Jaguars 72-44 this past Wednesday night in The Pit.
That win brought the Lobos to Rio Rancho and the Santa Ana Star Center. Another win and the Lobos might be looking at the Star Center as a home court and not a neutral court.
"I like this place," said Beggin. "I just hope we have a lot of fans out here."
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner