Jan. 6, 2009
What: Lobos vs. UNLV
When/Where: 7:07 p.m. tonight, The Pit
On The Air: My50-TV; 610-AM KNML
On The Web: GameTracker; live streaming on GoLobos.com
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
That the radar has picked up the Lobos and identified them as a team to beat in the Mountain West Conference race doesn't really change things for the UNM team picked to finish fourth in 2009.
When you are Lobos, league teams come at you hard. After all, this is the University of New Mexico team that has won five of the past six MWC Tournaments and has averaged almost 23 wins over the past eight seasons.
And when you are Lobos in The Pit, teams come at you ever harder because opponents know it takes a special effort to bring Lobos to their knees in University Arena where Lobos under Don Flanagan's guidance have won .854 percent of league games.
"I think every time a team plays us, especially in The Pit we have that target on our back," said junior Amy Beggin, who leads UNM in scoring with a 16.1 average.
"They want to beat us and it's always a big win if a team can beat us in conference (in The Pit). I think they always do take us seriously. They have a little chip on their shoulder."
The Lobos definitely have been one of the darlings of the league over the past few seasons, but in 2009, Flanagan thinks there are several teams capable of grabbing the 2009 regular-season title.
"I think there are five teams (besides UNM) who can win this conference. That's unusual," said Flanagan, who said two or three is a more traditional number for legitimate contenders.
Flanagan didn't say which teams made his list, but the teams that have made the most noise this season on the court are UNM, Brigham Young, TCU, San Diego State and Wyoming.
That group doesn't include perennial power Utah, the preseason pick to win the MWC, and UNM's opponent in The Pit tonight, the UNLV Rebels. The Rebs haven't been all that consistent this season (neither has Utah), but the Rebs do have enough talent to pull down a few upsets.
"I think there is going to be a lot more parity than there has ever been, since I've been here," said Flanagan. "I think there will be four or five teams all pushing for the top of the conference, so every single game is important.
"You got to make sure that you win at home, every single game. You got to do that. You can't lose to a team that you should beat. If you do that, you're not going to be at the top of the conference."
That obviously throws a little pressure on the Lobos' back come Wednesday when UNLV steps into The Pit. The Rebs are a team the Lobos should beat, especially in The Pit where the Lobo women are as tough as wet leather.
"It's really important that we get all our home wins," said Lobo senior Angela Hartill. " It's (MWC) so evened out. There are a bunch of different teams that could end up being on top."
The Lobos weren't exactly expected to be a MWC power this season and the league's preseason poll tabbed UNM to finish fourth behind Utah, SDSU and TCU. The Lobos' 11-2 record and cracking The Associated Press Top 25 last week surely has brightened the target on UNM's back. The Rebs' get to take the first league shot.
The Rebels are 7-6 on the season and have lost their last two games. UNLV is led by Shamela Hampton's 14.6 points per game. Three Rebels are averaging in double figures this season.
"She is an athletic player," Flanagan said of Hampton. "She jumps well. She's active. We have to make sure we focus on her a little bit." Said Hartill, the Lobo most likely to be guarding Hampton: "She's a really good athlete, very strong, a good defender, good on offense. I'm excited. I'm ready for it."
Flanagan said the Rebels' preferred attack on offense is the same dribble-drive scheme that UNM started the season with. UNM has deviated from that philosophy, but UNLV still likes to use its quickness to create shots. "They attack real hard," said Flanagan. "They can score a little bit. Their problem to date has been on defense."
The Lobos have won eight of nine games, but are coming off a pounding at Texas A&M. Beggin said UNM's second-half collapse in that contest should make the Lobos a better team because it exposed a few things the Lobos need to work on. The A&M game also further exposed Beggin as the main go-to player on the UNM squad.
"I think teams probably think they have to stop me," said Beggin. "But I think what's made us so successful is that you can't just shut one player down. My teammates have done a great job stepping up, scoring, getting rebounds and just doing whatever they have to do."
The Lobos entered the week ranked No 25 by The Associated Press, but dropped into the No. 28 spot. "It's nice to get recognition and know that people are noticing what we are doing," said Beggin. Beggin also was quick to note a good way for UNM to get back into The Top 25, by taking care of business in the MWC wars.
Which all starts with UNLV.