March 29, 2009
What: Lobos vs. Kansas -- WNIT quarterfinals
When/Where: 7 p.m. Monday, Santa Ana Star Center
Radio: 610-AM KNML / Lobo Radio Network
Online: GameTracker, live video on GoLobos.com
By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
You can say that two jewels of the Southwest have met, embraced, and both are the better for it in a win-win situation that continues to roll on.
Jewel 1: The New Mexico Lobos, who have played two WNIT games in the Santa Ana Star Center, and seem to be attracting fans from the Rio Rancho area who have never before experienced the excitement of UNM women's basketball.
"I've talked to some people who have never even seen a women's basketball game or even come close to seeing us in The Pit," said Yvonne Sanchez, a UNM assistant coach. "I think we have some new fans."
Jewel 2: The Santa Ana Star Center, a modern, classy and flashy multi-purpose arena tucked in a far corner of Rio Rancho -- an arena that surely has suffered a bit in attracting ticket buyers from the Albuquerque area, who believe the drive is simply too long.
But a whole lot of those Lobo fans are making the drive to the Star Center. UNM has averaged 4.629 fans in the Lobos two WNIT games in the Star Center.
"I've been surprised at how many of our fans have come out there," said freshman Sara Halasz. "It has more of a home-sweet-home feel to it now."
Said coach Sanchez: "I had never been to the place. I never knew it was so awesome."
The awesome combination of the Star Center and the New Mexico Lobos continues Monday night with the rough and ready Kansas Jayhawks invading the Star Center in quarterfinal WNIT action.
A neutral site? Yeah, sure, but only if the Jayhawks think half the 4,000-plus expected for the game are there to root for Kansas. The Lobos have embraced the Star Center as a home away from home and why not?
The Don Flanagan women only win about 85 percent of their games in The Pit. They are 100 percent in the Star Center.
"I was a little iffy about it at first," said Lobo Nikki Nelson. "But it's like a home away from home for us now. It's a smaller gym and it gets so loud in there for us.
"It gives you the feel like you are going away to a tournament game, but you don't have to get on a plane. You just drive for a few minutes."
Said coach Sanchez: "We don't look at it as a road game because we are home, sleeping in our own beds, going through the same routine we do with a Pit game. It's a neat thing for the girls."
The Lobos are 2-0 in the Santa Ana Star Center with wins over Nebraska and Oregon State. The Lobos also have enjoyed the modern amenities of the Star Center -- amenities soon to come to The Pit after the completion of the $60 million renovation.
The Pit will expand by 60,000-square feet. It will have 40 luxury suites and 300 club seats. It will have state-of-the-art locker room facilities, new scoreboards, an expanded concourse, new restrooms, expanded concessions, a high-rise look out front -- and much more.
The game experience at the Star Center has been a neat experience for the Lobos -- and a hint of what's to come.
"I love the big screens," said senior Amanda Adamson, who will not have the pleasure of playing in the renovated Pit. "You can look up there and watch yourself on it. They have treated us so well. I love the introductions. The spotlight. It's so cool."
Said sophomore Amanda Best: "It has such an intimate atmosphere. I can't say I like it more than The Pit, but if that was our gym, I wouldn't mind playing there at all. The fans are right on top of you. We've loved it there."
For the feel-good vibes of the Star Center to continue, the Lobos have to get past another quality foe. "It doesn't get easier," said Sanchez.
The Kansas Jayhawks step into the Star Center with a 20-13 record and a big, bad forward named Danielle McCray, who leads the Hawks in scoring at 20.9 point per game. She ranks 13th in the nation in scoring and is coming off a 35-point performance against Arkansas. The 5-foot-11 junior went 11-for-17 from the field vs. the Razorbacks.
McCray and the Jayhawks both have been hot of late. Kansas has won seven of nine, including wins over Top-25 ranked teams in No. 5 Baylor and No. 22 Iowa State. McCray has averaged 27.7 points and 8.5 rebounds in KU's six games in March.
McCray gets good scoring support from junior Sade Morris, who has averaged 20.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.0 steals in KU's four-game postseason run. She scored 23 against Arkansas.
"They have good inside-out balance," said Sanchez. "McCray is a complete package. We have to get help (defense) and then help the helper. We have to eliminate her touches.
"It's like a home away from home for us now."
Lobo Nikki Nelson on the Santa Ana Star Center
It also might come down to the crowd at the Santa Ana Star Center. The Lobos seemed to feed off the Star Center crowd Saturday in their win over Oregon State. The Lobos likely will need that boost of energy again against Kansas.
The Jayhawks are physical, talented and bigger than the Lobos, who took a physical pounding against Oregon State. But then the Jayhawks have to deal with the hurdles that come with a road game?
And the Santa Ana Star Center is definitely Lobo turf.
"It's not exactly a road game for us," said junior Amy Beggin. "It's a neutral site, but we have all the fans and we are used to the surrounding and we are really comfortable there."