March 26, 2009
What: Lobos vs. Oregon State -- WNIT
When/Where: 7 p.m. Friday - Santa Ana Star Center
Radio: 770-AM KKOB
Online: GameTracker, live streaming on GoLobos.com
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
A huge statement about New Mexico Lobos women's basketball was made in an unlikely arena in an unlikely city in a tournament considered to be a step down from the dance of the NCAA.
It was made in the Santa Ana Star Center, in the city of Rio Rancho, in the Women's National Invitation Tournament.
The statement wasn't really made by the Lobos, who pounded Nebraska 53-43 Wednesday night and will return to the Star Center on Friday to play the Oregon State Beavers. The shout-out came from the 4,499 fans who came out to the Star Center to support their Lobos.
By postseason standards, the crowd was huge, phenomenal, unbelievable. By Lobo standards, it was typical except you have to factor in that this game was not played in The Pit, not played in Albuquerque.
"We have such a special opportunity at the University of New Mexico because the whole state is behind us and behind us no matter where we play," said Lobo junior Amy Beggin.
"To have that many fans there creating that kind of atmosphere was unbelievable. It just shows the pride our fans take in Lobo basketball and it reminds us how much we give back to them."
The Lobo/fan relationship is an important give-and-take bond that works both ways. The Lobo fan support - the 4,499 gate Wednesday -- also should serve as a reminder to the rest of the world of college basketball that the University of New Mexico Lobos have few equals when it comes to the quantity and the quality of fan support.
The WNIT is set up to boost attendance by allowing one of the two teams to play on its home court. Of the 15 other second-round WNIT games, UNM outdrew Oregon State, Arkansas, Kansas, Marquette, Illinois State, Indiana, Bowling Green, Boston College, Hartford, Wake Forest, Richmond, St. Bonaventure, Wisconsin, South Florida and Mississippi. In other words: all of them.
Actually, the Lobos blew those sites away. There was only one WNIT team that drew more than 4,000 fans: UNM. There was only one WNIT team that drew more than 3,000 fans: UNM. There were only two teams to draw more than 2,000 fans and that was UNM and Bowling Green, which barely cracked that mark at 2,072.
It gets better for UNM - worse for the other schools. Boston College and Boston University played at Boston College in front of 575 fans. Ole Miss drew 263 fans for their home game vs. Murray State. There were seven second-round games that failed to draw more than 1,000 fans.
Of course, that's the WNIT. Let's move on to the mighty NCAA Tournament.
In NCAA tourney games played this past week, UNM outdrew South Dakota State/Baylor, LSU/Louisville, Purdue/North Carolina, Rutgers/Auburn, Arkansas State/Florida State, San Diego State/Stanford, Kansas State, Vanderbilt (2,720 in The Pit), Gonzaga/Pittsburgh, Virginia/California, Georgia Tech/Oklahoma, Ball State/Iowa.
Not all these NCAA games were played on home sites, but some were and others were pretty close for several teams.
The NCAA games that were the big draws this week were U-Conn at home (8,237) and Maryland at home (10,065). But Flanagan has a thought about attendance should UNM win again at the Star Center and return to The Pit.
"If we get back to The Pit, we'll probably outdraw every (NCAA game), except for The Final Four which is sold out in advance," he said.
"What happens to fan support at this time of the year is that at a lot of places fans are done with the season. They aren't done here. The players think that's important (to be supported).
"We feel fortunate to be a women's basketball program that is popular and remains popular at this time of the season. Everyone of our players was excited about last night's game."
Yeah, New Mexico is a special place for women's basketball. Because of a Flanagan program that has won better than 85 percent of Pit games since 1995. Because of fans who embrace their Lobos with a fatherly, motherly hug.
"A player has to come here and see a game and experience the atmosphere before you really appreciate it," said Beggin. "It's not something you can describe. It's something you have to see and feel for yourself."
If you want to see that Pit passion and love, here's a good chance. Lobos vs. Oregon State on Friday night. Well, the game won't be in The Pit, won't be in Albuquerque, but that's the powerful thing about Lobos and their fans. "They go where we go," said Beggin.
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 GoLobo.com articles can be found on The Richard Stevens Corner.