A Game at The Pit – A Unique Basketball Experience

Lyn Scarbrough

February 25, 2014 at 12:38 pm.

Guard Kendall Williams (10) leads a tough New Mexico team. ( Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports)

ALBUQUERQUE – It’s hard to write a column about covering a New Mexico basketball game at The Pit, the Lobos’ renowned arena that was built in a 37-foot hole in a mesa southeast of Albuquerque.

It’s not hard to find something to say.

Just the opposite. There’s too much good stuff to include in just one column.

Writer’s block isn’t a problem at The Pit, especially when the Lobos put one of the country’s top college teams on the floor.

Start with the arena itself, one of the most unique in all of sports. It was built in 1966 when the roof was constructed, then the hole was dug and the arena was built from the bottom up. So far, I haven’t been able to find any other facility that was put together that way.

It was originally called University Arena, but was soon given “The Pit” nickname. That became the official name in 2009. Nobody is sure who first came up with the nickname, and that’s a shame. That person should be given credit for one of the most famous of all monikers.

Just how revered is The Pit?

In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the Top 20 Sports Venues of the 20th Century. The Pit came in at No. 13 on that list. That was just behind Wembley Stadium in London, and ahead of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the Rose Bowl and Notre Dame Stadium. Yankee Stadium, Augusta National, Lambeau Field and Roland Garros in Paris joined The Pit on that list. That’s strong company to keep.

From the beginning, the facility was recognized for its incomparable subterranean design which allowed unobstructed views from every seat because there were no support columns.

And, there was another big advantage for the home team and its fans – noise!

The compact interior, proximity of seats to the floor, and steep grade come together to produce a legendary noise level and one of the biggest home court advantages in all of college basketball.

The Lobos won the opening game in The Pit, 62-53, over Abilene Christian on December 1, 1966. In the next 48 seasons, New Mexico has won over 82 per cent of its home games. That’s on the same level as some other pretty well-known programs that have all-time home winning records over 80 per cent – Kentucky at Rupp, North Carolina at the Dean Dome, Duke at Cameron, and Kansas at Allen Field House, to name a few. Again, that’s strong company.

There have been improvements over the years. An expansion in 1975 enlarged the concourse and concession areas and raised the seating capacity from 14,831 to over 18,000. The most recent renovation, completed for the 2011 season, added luxury suites, club seats, video boards, digital signs, and other amenities. Seating capacity was reduced to 15,411 while fans were given greater comfort and upgraded services.

But, one thing has remained consistent since The Pit’s first season.

Exciting, fast-paced, winning basketball.

During those years, New Mexico has played in the NCAA Tournament 14 times, including three of the past four seasons. The Lobos have captured 13 conference regular season or tournament championships. Prominent players have included five-time NBA champion Michael Cooper, NBA all-star Danny Granger, and three-time NBA champion Luc Longley.

One of the most memorable games in NCAA history was played there. Almost every basketball fan has seen North Carolina State head coach Jim Valvano running uncontrollably around the floor of The Pit at the end of the 1983 championship game after Lorenzo Charles put back Dereck Whittenburg’s missed shot to upset the Houston “Phi Slamma Jamma” team led by Akeem Olajuwon. That was the last NCAA Final Four to be played in an on-campus arena.

In four decades of covering college basketball, I had never attended a game in The Pit before last Saturday night. I knew the history of the arena, had watched Lobo games on television, talked with others who had covered games there. So, I thought I knew what to expect.

The experience didn’t disappoint.

Two hours before tipoff, hundreds of students lined up outside the arena on a cool, windy afternoon, waiting to get inside to practice cheers that they would perform during the game. By time for tipoff, the place was filled to capacity, and all but about 20 seats were filled with frenzied people dressed in cherry and silver … and black and red and gray. This place has a colorful, rocking, passionate crowd.

They were there for what was supposed to be the Mountain West Game of the Year.

The visiting San Diego State Aztecs came in as the nation’s No. 7 team with a 23-2 overall record, leading the conference with a 12-1 league mark. Games included a win at No. 8 Kansas and a loss at No. 4 Arizona by only eight points. Led by 6-3 senior guard Xavier Thames, the Aztecs were averaging 72 points per game. Thames was recently named a finalist for the Naismith Award (National Player of the Year) and the Cousy Award (nation’s top point guard).

New Mexico came in as one of the nation’s hottest – and most underrated – teams. The Lobos had won eight of its past nine, including a revenge win at UNLV earlier in the week. With an overall mark of 20-5, they trailed the Aztecs by one game in the conference.

The home team had two all-star candidates of its own.

Senior forward Cameron Bairstow (6-9) joined Thames on the list of finalists for the Naismith Award and 6-4 senior Kendall Williams joined Thames on the Cousy Award finalist list.

From the outset, this one was never a contest. It was a total beatdown and the 58-44 final score doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of the massacre.

Bairstow led all scorers with 26 points, hitting 11 of 18 from the field. Williams pitched in 10 points and added seven assists.

But, the story was the aggressive, smothering, rebounding Lobos’ defense. For the game, San Diego State only hit 32.3 per cent from the field and 20 per cent from three-point range. They missed every free throw and only had four assists.

As for Thames, he was a non-factor, or worse. He scored a meaningless seven points, missing 12 of 15 shots, frequently harassed by New Mexico’s reaching, shifting defenders. The Aztecs were held 28 points under their season average, the lowest point total of the season, 16 points less than in any other game.

In some earlier games, the Lobos’ defense had been criticized for its inconsistency, while San Diego State had been the leading defensive team in the Mountain West.

“We’ve held the last nine teams under their average,” New Mexico head coach Craig Neal said after the game, defending his team from the criticism. “If that’s bad defense, then that’s bad defense, but our defense was terrific tonight.”

For sure, Neal was right about that.

Aztecs’ head coach Steve Fisher didn’t stop with the New Mexico defense in heaping praise after watching his team get steamrolled, calling the Lobos “the best team that we’ve played this season.”

“That includes Kansas,” said Fisher, whose 1989 Michigan Wolverine team won the NCAA Championship. “That includes Marquette. That includes Creighton. They’re a terrific team and they played that way tonight. I’m sure that they’ll be ranked next week.”

Fisher was right, and so were the voters … barely. New Mexico received 113 votes, moving into the Associated Press poll at No. 25. Of course, San Diego State is still 12 spots ahead of the Lobos, so apparently some of the voters couldn’t stay up late enough on Saturday night to watch that game on ESPN. There aren’t 25 teams better than the Lobos team that took the court on Saturday night.

If they can keep the momentum, this team will be hard to beat in the postseason. That will face a big test in the regular season finale in San Diego on March 8, scheduled for a 10:05 p.m., Eastern Time tip-off. Every voter should stay up long enough to watch this one. It should be well worth the wait.

And, if you’re a real college basketball fan, move The Pit up on your “must do” bucket list of places to watch a game. That experience will be well worth it, too. You won’t be disappointed.