Pit's Pendulum Has Been Swinging Aztecs' Way

Times Staff Writer

Most college basketball teams leave Albuquerque with a loss, bruised egos and ears ringing from the screaming Lobo fans. San Diego State usually leaves the University Arena--more commonly known as The Pit--with a victory.

Coming into tonight's showdown for first place in the Western Athletic Conference, the Aztecs (4-0, 12-2) have won three straight against the Lobos (3-1, 10-5) here. Overall, they have won seven straight against New Mexico.

Tonight's game between two clubs with four-game winning streaks begins at 6:35, but will be broadcast by KSDO (1130-AM) on a tape-delay basis at 7:30.

The Aztecs' recent record at The Pit is impressive when you consider that since the building opened in 1966, New Mexico is 239-61 overall and 91-34 in WAC play here.

It's called The Pit because the 45 rows of red-colored bleachers extend from ground level down to the playing floor. When those seats are full, the fans can give the Lobos a considerable home-court advantage. Against most teams.

"It sure is strange," said Lobo Coach Gary Colson. "We've played them better there than we have here. They seem to think this is their own court."

Most of the Aztec players, who are used to playing before sparse crowds at the San Diego Sports Arena, probably wish it was.

The huge structure that looks like an indoor football stadium is almost always filled to capacity.

In 12 home games this season, the Lobos have averaged 16,457 at the 17,121-seat arena. When reserved standing room seats are sold, which is quite often, the Pit holds 18,100. Most of whom are loud and intense.

"After the Georgetown game (the Hoyas beat the Lobos, 69-61, on Dec. 22)," Colson said, "your ears were still ringing the next day."

It's that type of enthusiasm that the Aztec players say makes The Pit so much fun to play in.

"It makes you feel like you're playing in a big-time game," said Aztec guard Jeff Konek, who started and scored 10 points in last year's 74-68 win at The Pit. "The big thing is to get off to a lead and keep the crowd from getting too loud."

Who are these rabid Lobo fans?

"The average New Mexico fan is a blue-collar worker, married, has a couple of kids, drinks a beer before he comes to the game and then raises hell," is the way New Mexico center George Scott put it.

Fan interest obviously stems from the success of the Lobos. Colson lost four key players from last year's NIT team that went 24-11, and there was speculation that this might be a rebuilding season.

At 10-5, including a 76-70 WAC win at BYU, the Lobos have surprised Colson.

"We're ahead of schedule," Colson said, "and think that we're building a team of the future."

The Lobos start three sophomores, guards Kelvin Scarborough (10.1 points and 5.5 assists) and Hunter Greene (11.3 points and 3.9 assists), and forward Mike Winters (6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds).

Junior forward Johnny Brown, a 6-6 transfer from Loyola Marymount, is averaging a team-high 20.6 points and 7.2 rebounds. Scott is averaging 15.1 points and 6.3 rebounds at center.

The Lobos like to run, and Colson said that he plans to play the Aztecs at their own running game.

Running has enabled the Aztecs to get off to their best start ever as a Division 1 team.

"They're the toast of the WAC," Colson said.

Colson also thinks this year's Aztec team is better than his club.

"I think they've been better than us, personnel-wise, for the last few years," Colson said. "I think they've had the best material in the league the last few years.

"That's not a reflection on Smokey (Gaines) . . . It's just that the chemistry wasn't there."

It's that chemistry and the Aztecs' balanced scoring attack that has put the first-place Aztecs in a position to take a commanding lead in the WAC if they win at New Mexico tonight and at UTEP on Saturday night.

"We're playing it game by game," Konek said, "but if we win these two games, we'll definitely be in the driver's seat."

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