Stevens: Will Pit West's Sea of Lobo Red Help Lobos Edge UNLV?
March 13, 2013
New Mexico Lobos Women's Basketball -At The Mountain West Tournament
Thursday: 3:30 p.m. (MT) -- No. 5 seed New Mexico Lobos (16-13, 8-8 MW) vs. No. 4 seed UNLV Lady Rebels (12-18, 8-8)
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
The Pit West - sometimes called the Las Vegas Thomas & Mack Center -- has two targets at 3:30 p.m. (MT) on Thursday.
There is a target for Pit West's love and affection - Lobos. There is a target to aim a dash of fury at - UNLV's Kelli Thompson.
For sure, the Yvonne Sanchez Lobos need that love from Pit West. It is a shot of adrenalin, a surge of energy that has carried New Mexico Lobo women to five Mountain West titles and a shiny 75 percent success rate in the Mountain West Tournament.
But there is no guarantee that the hiss from Pit West will have any effect on UNLV's Kelli Thompson. She faced the Lobos in their real Pit in February and threw down 29 points in UNLV's 58-57 win.
That Pit win handed UNLV a sweep over UNM and brought the Lady Rebs the No. 4 seed. Both teams finished 8-8 in league play.
The key to Thompson has to come on the court. But are there any defensive answers for this 6-foot, athletic Rebel?
"We have to be motivated to get them out of the paint and definitely stop Thompson," said UNM's Deeva Vaughn. "She is the one who has killed us the last couple of games. We have to contain her."
Said Coach Sanchez: "Kelli has had some phenomenal games against us both times. She always seems to be the key against us. I think (a key is) limiting her touches and taking her out of the flow and making some of the other players make plays."
Easier said than done.
The Lobos had a similar plan in The Pit when Thompson roasted UNM for 29 points and eight boards. She can be a one-woman wrecking crew when it comes to the scoreboard. She also has been getting some inside help lately as freshman Rejane Verin has averaged 23.3 points and 12.7 rebounds over the past two weeks. Verin has earned back-to-back MW Player of the Week awards. The Lobos were snubbed all season for this weekly honor.
Verin had only six points in The Pit, but she had three steals, three blocks and a game-high nine boards. She appears to be coming out of her rookie shell. Danielle Millers had 14 points and six boards in The Pit.
The play of other Rebels sort of doubles UNM's defensive challenge. The Lobos have to worry about Thompson. They also have to worry about a handful of other athletic Rebels probably charged up not to repeat what happened in 2012.
That's when the Lady Rebels were knocked out of the Mountain West Tournament by a team of walking wounded Lobos.
The Lobos are healthy, deeper and better this season and also have some payback of their own planned.
"We lost to them twice and by one point when it was here (Pit) so that kind of left a bad taste in our mouth," said UNM's Caroline Durbin, a member of the All-MW Second Team.
Said Sanchez: "It's going to be tough. UNLV is playing in their back yard."
The Mountain West Tournament began Tuesday for the men and the women with Nevada losing to Wyoming on the men's side and beating Air Force on the women's side. The Wolf Pack women have the dubious pleasure of facing the Mountain West champions, San Diego State, in Thursday's quarterfinal action in the Thomas & Mack.
The Aztecs lost their first game of the MW season to Fresno State and then rolled undefeated to the regular-season title. The winner of UNM/UNLV likely will face SDSU in Friday's semifinals. The No. 2 and No. 3 seeds - Fresno State and Wyoming - are expected to meet in the semifinals on the other side of the bracket.
But we'll see what happens.
Sanchez said the Aztecs are probably a heavy favorite "because of their body of work, but it's tournament time."
What Sanchez means is that there are a bunch of hungry Mountain West teams looking to ride upsets en route to the NCAA automatic bid that goes to the tourney champion. If there is an at-large bid in the MW field, it probably will only go to the Aztecs.
The Lobos threw out some record-setting upsets last year to reach the championship game against the Aztecs. The Lobos were the first No. 7 seed to beat at No. 2 seed and the first No. 7 to reach the title game.
The Aztecs ended the Lobos' magical run in 2012, but there are fresh dreams to take into the Thomas & Mack.
The Lobos will have more fans dreaming than any other team.
"They call it The Pit West," said Vaughn. "All of our fans usually go. They are so loyal. They help us out a lot. It's like our home away from home. It's a great experience."
Said Durbin of the pro-Lobo crowd: "It's so nice. It's also people who don't normally come to our games in Albuquerque and they are out in Vegas and they come, so it's nice to show them what Lady Lobo basketball is about."
A shift in the MW tourney schedule probably will bring even more Lobo fans to the UNM women's game on Thursday. The schedule used to have the women playing their quarterfinals on Wednesday and the men going at it on Thursday. The Mountain switched that so the Lobo men will play on Wednesday bringing in their mountain of fans early.
The Lobo wom en plan to reap the benefits. The sea of Lobo red could be of Tsunami proportion.
"Our fans are unbelievable," said Sanchez. "It really is a pretty special time for us."
NEW MEXICO LOBOS 2012-13 ROSTER/STATS