STEVENS: Lobos Look To Protect Home Turf; Aztecs Need A Road win
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics  
Release:  01/21/2009
Courtesy: New Mexico Athletics

Jan. 21, 2009

Lobo Basketball
Lobos vs. San Diego State
When/Where: 7:07 p.m. tonight -- The Pit
On The Air: KASY My50-TV; 610 KNML-AM
Online: GameTracker; All Access (live) on GoLobos.com

By Richard Stevens -- Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

Accolades, trophies, records, etc., aren't that big a deal for Lobo Coach Don Flanagan. He has a ton of them and there surely are more on the way. So, setting a mark for UNM's best start ever is a distant sidebar for what a win over San Diego State would mean for his Lobos.

"I think the most important thing right now is protecting your home during conference play," said Flanagan, whose Lobos could go 15-2 with a win over SDSU. "You have to win at home in this conference, if you expect to be on the top of the conference."

Yeah, that's half the formula and maybe even the most important part of being a leader of the pack in the Mountain West Conference: protect your turf.

The other part is getting a few breakthroughs on the road. Like what the Lobos did last week at Brigham Young. Like what the San Diego State Aztecs are planning to do in The Pit tonight.

Sure, it would be nice for this special group of Lobos (14-2, 3-0 MWC) to establish a school record, but the most important aspect of a win over the Aztecs would be that protecting the home turf thing while not allowing the Aztecs to grab a major breakthrough on the road.

And a Pit win has to represent exactly that for the Aztecs. It would be a major plus for this year's SDSU team, which believes it is good enough to challenge for the 2009 MWC crown. It would be huge breakthrough for the SDSU program, which needs to get a monkey off its back -- a monkey called the University of New Mexico Lobos.

The Aztecs' last win in The Pit came last century and even though that win came in 1995, it probably feels like a hundred years for the Aztecs. SDSU has lost 19 straight to UNM, the school's longest active losing streak to a MWC member.

"They are going to be gunning for us," said UNM's Amy Beggin.

The Aztecs' motivation probably is similar to UNM's. This game is important simply because this game is important. UNM needs to hold serve at home. SDSU needs a road win. But the Aztecs have a few sidebars just like UNM does in going for a school record start. The Aztecs (11-4, 2-1) want the UNM monkey off their backs. The Aztecs surely remember their ticket to the NCAA Tournament was punched "Void" by the Lobos, who beat SDSU in the MWC tourney championship game last season. It was Lobos who went dancing.

The Aztecs are a young and improving program. Another tempting sidebar for the Aztecs is to simply beat the Lobos in The Pit. Not too many teams do that, and nobody has done it this year. You want to raise a few eyebrows in the MWC and get people to take your growth seriously, you whip the Lobos in The Pit.

"If they could steal a game on the road," said Flanagan, "that puts you in the upper echelon of the conference."

The upper echelon of the MWC going into this week's action is Utah at 4-0 and New Mexico at 3-0. TCU, BYU and San Diego State are 2-1. It's early, but it's probably fair and safe to say that the MWC regular-season champ will emerge from that group.

The formula for the 2009 MWC championship probably can be boiled down into three parts: 1- Win at home; 2- Win at CSU, UNLV, Wyoming and Air Force; 3- Steal a road win or two at UNM, Utah, SDSU, BYU and TCU.

The Lobos already have cracked into the No. 3 section. Their win at BYU was a major breakthrough. Utah has no major breakthroughs and neither does SDSU or TCU. BYU has a major breakthrough with a win at TCU, but the Cougars took a step back with their loss to the Lobos.

UNM, Utah and SDSU have not lost at home. BYU lost in Provo to UNM. TCU lost in Fort Worth to BYU. If you buy into the 3-part formula, UNM is in the best shape with the win at BYU. Utah and SDSU are doing fine, but need a major breakthrough on the road. TCU and BYU have some catching up to do.

Which means the Aztecs, needing a major breakthrough, will be coming at the Lobos hard tonight in The Pit. Which means the Lobos will be defending their turf like mean, mother bears.

"It's going to be quite a competitive game," said Flanagan. Said Beggin: "It's going to be a good battle." Said Lobo Amanda Best: "It's going to be fun."

The Aztecs' plan tonight is to beat UNM with athleticism, quickness and pressure. The Lobos will counter with an in-your-face defense and a disciplined offense that has learned one of the secrets to winning basketball games. You take good shots, you just don't throw it at the basket and pray.

The Lobos also hope to keep the Aztecs' simmering at a pace that is beneficial to Lobos. "They are faster than we are," said Flanagan. "They are capable of playing at a very high level. They have had some outstanding games. You have to make the speed your level as opposed to their (level)."

The Aztecs are an athletic team with good depth. Sophomore Paris Johnson, a 6-foot-4 center, is the Aztecs' biggest threat averaging 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. Junior Jene Morris scores at a 14.8 clip and Quenese Davis kicks in 10.9 points per game.

The Aztecs like to run, gun and feed off turnovers, but their speed can be controlled. Wyoming held SDSU to a season-low 49 points in a 49-42 Aztec win in San Diego. "What they do very well is take you out of your offense," said Flanagan, referring to the Aztecs' pressure defense. "Their quickness is quicker than most teams. We have to make sure we play to the speed of the game early."

Said Beggin: "They are a pressure team. We really need to take care of the ball."

The Aztecs' press can be daunting, but UNM probably has seen better pressure from better athletes in games at Stanford and at Texas A&M. However, UNM lost those games by a combined 70 points.

"We played a team in Texas A&M that was like the Aztecs (full-court press) and we didn't do that well," said Best. "I look at this as a game we can avenge ourselves and show that we can handle pressure and play with a team that is up-tempo. The Aztecs pressure you all over the court, but we're ready."

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