STEVENS: Best Game Today Might Be Lobos vs. Utah in The Pit
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  01/31/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

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Jan. 31, 2009

Lobo Basketball
Lobos vs. Utah
When/Where: Noon, today, The Pit
TV: CBS College Sports
Radio: 610-AM KNML

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Forget getting to a Super Bowl party, too early. Heck, that NFL finale might be the second-best sporting event to be played today. The best struggle of the day just might be in The Pit. And this one is live, well, for those of us not sunning in Florida.

It's Lobos vs. Utah Utes. It's Don Flanagan vs. Elaine Elliott. It's Lobos Amy Beggin and Angela Hartill vs. Morgan Warburton and Kalee Whipple. It's also Flanagan looking for a landmark win as a Lobo coach.

Of course, win No. 300 as a Lobo probably has some sort of pricetag for Flanagan. The University of New Mexico coach might even have an ulcer or two from all the close games he has had to face in 14 years on the UNM sideline.

But pushing his 2008-09 record to 1-0 against the Utah Utes might be one of those "priceless" items. Likely the main reason Flanagan wants No. 300 Sunday in The Pit is because it would push the Lobos a game past the Utes -- and past Elliott.

Who are good. Who are very, very good. The Utes have won nine straight. Eliott has 529 collegiate wins. But this game is more about Utes and Lobos.

"I think they are the best team in the conference," said Flanagan. "Execution wise, they do it better than anyone else. They have the talent that can get them through the tough times. They have role players who do their roles better than any other team. "They make you play their game and when you play their game, they usually win."

Flanagan says the key to the Utes jumping off to a 6-0 start in the Mountain West Conference isn't just their leading scorers Morgan Warburton (18.7 points) or Kalee Whipple (16.7). The key is all the other Utes who are willing to do all the little things necessary to get Warburton and Whipple open for shots. Which they often hit.

"They are very organized in getting the ball in the hands of their scorers," said Flanagan. "They utilize their other players effectively as screeners or cutters to create some diversions before they get it to the real people they want to get it to. They get it to their scorers better than any team in the conference."

So, doesn't that make it easy on the Lobos? Just concentrate on Warburton and Whipple and forget those other Utes? Leave them open? That's not really Flanagan's style. He believes in getting into the face of all shooters, but he likely has a few plans ahead for Warburton and Whipple.

Like UNM's typical, tough-nosed, disciplined defense. Which will be needed on Sunday. Warburton and Whipple already appear destined for All-MWC honors.

"They might have the two best players in the conference," said Flanagan. "And the other kids are committed to rebound shots. The whole team, as a team, is very very effective and they are playing at their best right now."

The Lobos (16-3, 5-1 MWC) aren't looking too shabby either. UNM is off to its best start since the season of 2004-05. The Lobos are four wins shy of a 20-win season and they still have ten games to go. But this game is huge for UNM if they want to outrace all the other MWC teams to the regular-season finish line.

"We have a tough second half," said Flanagan. "We are playing away at three of the top teams in the league. We have to take full advantage of playing at home. This game is probably more important to us than it is to Utah. They (Utes) know we still have to go to Utah. It's a very, very important game for our team."

The Lobos were swept by Utah in the regular season last year. The Lobos have won 5-of-7 going into Sunday's game. The Utes are hot, having won nine straight, but UNM is 12-1 in The Pit this season with the only loss coming in league play to San Diego State.

Editor's note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner