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STEVENS: Flanagan Sees Silver Lining in MWC Format That Favors Top Seeds
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  03/08/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

March 8, 2009

Lobo Basketball
Saturday:
Lobos 63, Wyoming 45
Up Next: Lobos vs. Air Force, 3 p.m. (Mt) Tuesday, Las Vegas (MWC tourney)
On The Air: 610-AM KNML; No TV
Online: GameTracker on GoLobos.com

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Lights, camera, action. The Mountain West Tournament opens Tuesday in the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center. Oh, there will be action and the Mountain West probably will turn on the lights for the women. But don't look for any cameras in Tuesday's opening round.

The Lobos 3 p.m. clash with Air Force will not be televised on the Mountain West Network and neither will the 5:30 p.m. (Mt) game between Wyoming and Colorado State, or the 8 p.m. (Mt) game between Brigham Young and UNLV. And Lobo coach Don Flanagan isn't too thrilled with the snub.

"I feel all the equipment is there, why not turn on the lights?" said Flanagan, whose Lobos ended the regular season Saturday in The Pit with a healthy 63-45 spanking of Wyoming. "That's a little disrespectful to our program and all the programs that are involved in playing that Tuesday.

"From our point of view, we want to be covered. That's why we have a Mountain West (network). You are supposed to cover our conference and these are the biggest games in the conference."

Normally, a whole lot of Lobo fans would be able to see Flanagan's women play anyway because a whole lot of Lobo fans usually visit Vegas when Lobos are battling for a conference tournament title. "When we go to Vegas, The Pit comes to Vegas with us," said Lobo senior Angela Hartill. Said Flanagan: "Sometimes it feels like home, especially in the final game."

However, the Lobo pack in the stands might not be at full strength come Tuesday because the Lobos open early and open with an Air Force team that looks to be more of a formality than a serious challenge. The Lobos beat Air Force twice during the MWC regular-season by an average of 40 points per game.

"The match up favors us," said Flanagan. "We did quite well against Air Force, but you can't assume anything."

The Lobos beat the Falcons 73-39 and 79-33 during the regular season. You have to figure the Lobos' chances of losing to Air Force are about the same as the Mountain Network turning their cameras on for the MWC women on Tuesday.

The Lobos fell into a first-round game on Tuesday by grabbing the No. 4 seed and becoming a victim to the new MWC tourney format that gives the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds a bye to the semifinals and hands the No. 3 seed a bye to the quarterfinals.

But Flanagan really isn't all that upset with his placement. If the top seeds win, UNM's path to the MWC title game is Air Force, Wyoming on Wednesday, a day's rest and a semifinal war with Utah on Friday at 1 p.m.(Mt).

"I think if you get by the first two games then it's a pretty good opportunity," said Flanagan. "You've played two games and you get a day's rest and then you play the No. 1 team that has been sitting and has not played a game.

"I like that scenario. I like the position you are in on Friday -- if you get to Friday."

The Lobos chances of getting to Friday -- and getting after Utah after two tourney wins and a day's rest -- don't look too bad. First, Air Force. Enough said. Then a Wyoming team that UNM lost to by two points in Laramie and beat by 18 points in The Pit on Saturday. Or, beat a CSU team that the Lobos swept this season.

The Lobos ended their regular season at 20-9 and 9-7 in the MWC with their 63-45 victory over Wyoming in The Pit on Saturday. It was the ninth consecutive time the Lobos reached the 20-win plateau and the 11th time under Flanagan.

The Lobos side of the MWC bracket stacks up pretty favorable for UNM -- if the Lobos get to Friday. The Lobos probably match up better with Utah than they do with San Diego State and maybe even TCU. The Aztecs, the No. 2 seed, got a bye to the semis and TCU, the No. 3 seed, got a bye to the quarters. The BYU/UNLV winner has to battle past TCU and SDSU to reach the finals.

So, do you think the Utes are looking forward to a Friday meeting with a UNM team that could be riding a two-game MWC tourney win streak and coming off a day's rest? Probably not. This is the UNM team that has won five of the past six MWC tourney titles.

They probably ought to call Thomas & Mack the "Little Pit" based on UNM's success in Vegas. It's difficult to beat UNM in Vegas and it's probably more difficult to "upset" the Lobos in Vegas.

A lot of teams that fall in upsets do so because all of a sudden their shots aren't falling and they don't have the fundamental basics to fall back on. The Lobos have those things.

They have defense and discipline and focus. They honor the ball and they honor the rebound. They take good shots, something that's not a staple in women's or men's basketball.

You might be able to out-talent a Don Flanagan team in a MWC tourney game, but you aren't going to out-fundamental him or out-prepare him. The Lobos surely won't go down as the most talented team in the MWC in 2009, but this is a program accustomed to success in Vegas. They have a little swagger.

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When we go to Vegas, The Pit comes to Vegas with us."
Lobo senior Angela Hartill
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"I think the most important thing is to take away the anxiousness, the nervousness, the adrenaline that your players might have," said Flanagan. "I have to be more in emotional control than I normally am in during the season.

"It's not one of those games where you are running up and down the sidelines yelling and screaming. You can't let officials or anything get to you emotionally in a game. You have to focus on what you are doing. During the tournament, it seems I get more relaxed and more calm and that transfers to the players."

The winner of the 2009 MWC tourney receives a bye to the NCAA Tournament. For the Lobos, that would mean a return to The Pit where the NCAA will hold an opening round. "Our ultimate goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament," said senior Amanda Adamson.

If there is any edge for Utah and SDSU in the format for the MWC tourney, it's being rested. But that rest might be more important if one of those teams advance to the championship game to play a team that has been in Vegas since Tuesday and has had to play three games. Flanagan doesn't see much of an advantage in the semifinal game.

"If you play in a tournament and have success in a tournament, you are better off than someone who has been sitting and waiting to play.," he said.

Said UNM's Hartill: "I don't think the format matters. We just have to play hard every game. We definitely are going to focus on each individual team we play. That's our game plan. We know we have to give it all we have or we`re going home."

Of course, if the Lobos give it their all and happen to win four straight, they`ll be going home another way: To The Pit, to the NCAA Tournament.

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

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