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Wednesday, March 19
New Mexico counting on home 'Pit' advantage

Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico coach Don Flanagan was unable to get a ticket to watch Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team finish its storied run to a national title 20 years ago in The Pit.

"I watched it on television,'' Flanagan said.

He'll now have a front row seat as his team tries to capitalize on its home "Pit'' advantage and make an extended run in the women's NCAA Tournament.

New Mexico (22-8) plays Miami (18-12) in Saturday's first round in the Midwest Regional. Mississippi State (23-7) takes on Manhattan (20-9) in the first game.

For the Lobos, the road to the Final Four couldn't be more familiar or friendly. New Mexico is hosting the first four rounds of the tournament, and four home victories would earn the Lobos a spot in Atlanta.

"I don't think there's any doubt we have an advantage playing in The Pit,'' Flanagan said Wednesday. "We have maybe as good a crowd as anybody. This is a special event to them.''

The fans and the town have a history of rooting for the underdog.

Valvano, with his humor and willingness to party with the locals, won them over long before Lorenzo Charles grabbed Dereck Whittenburg's airball and stuffed it home for the game-winning shot in the N.C. State's 54-52 win over Houston.

"He won a dance contest at one of the nightclubs,'' said Flanagan, a high school coach in Albuquerque that season. "He was an exciting guy to be around because of his charisma and outlook on life.''

New Mexico is building a reputation as a power in women's basketball. The Lobos played before an average of more than 11,000 fans this season, fourth nationally behind Tennessee, Connecticut and Texas Tech.

Interest in the team and the Lobos' success started when Flanagan arrived eight years ago. He has transformed the program from one of the worst in the country to a team making its third trip to the NCAA Tournament in five years.

New Mexico lost 96 games in the four seasons before Flanagan arrived. The Lobos have five 20-win seasons since he arrived.

The Lobos' fans are loud.

"Our fans are the bomb,'' said senior forward Chelsea Grear. "They come out and rock the house. They know how to party and how to rattle a team.''

Sophomore forward Lindsey Arndt agreed.

"You're not supposed to play for the fans, but it's hard not to because of the energy they bring,'' she said.

Flanagan expects New Mexico's fans to root for No. 14 seed Manhattan against Mississippi State, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest. That upset, coupled with a New Mexico win over Miami, would mean the Lobos wouldn't have to face the Bulldogs' LaToya Thomas, who averaged 25.6 points this season.

"Mississippi State is really good,'' Flanagan said. "They lost to Tennessee at Tennessee by one, and Tennessee has a different level of athlete.''

But upsets and the unexpected have become the norm in March, and Flanagan believes New Mexico can be one of the lower-seeded teams that sticks around.

"If you win, and I think Valvano would say the same thing if he were here, you get a little momentum, a little confidence,'' Flanagan said. "Your kids are comfortable and you realize you've had success and you're ready to move on.''

Two decades ago, Valvano and the Wolfpack did just that as a No. 6 seed. The Lobo women, also a No. 6 seed, are trying to make it happen again.



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