LAS VEGAS — Just minutes away from the strip on Friday evening, the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team did something it hasn’t done since the 2013-14 season — advance to the Mountain West Tournament championship game.
In fact the Lobos have been one-and-done victims in the tournament for the last three seasons, with no chance of winning a conference championship or advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
Seniors Sam Logwood and Joe Furstinger, players who have been with the program all four years without experiencing what the 2014-15 team did in taking home Mountain West strap, have now earned the achievement of playing in front of a sea of cherry and silver at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Neither of the two seniors had won a Mountain West tournament game prior to this season, but seemed to appreciate the gravity of being winners of two of them. The first came against Wyoming, followed by Friday's win over Utah State. And now, they'll face the Aztecs on Saturday in the arena that UNM fans dub “Pit West.”
“Definitely one of the best highlights of my career,” Logwood said of reaching the championship game on Saturday. “Probably the best. It's just a great feeling, like just fighting through adversity and finally getting what I've worked so hard for, just my teammates, as well. We've been through a lot. I've personally been through a lot, Troy (Simons) has been through a lot and the returners, as well. And we're seeing the work pay off and it's a blessing to be able to play tomorrow.”
But the Lobos didn’t come alone, though. Right alongside the team were the fans, who showed up in droves to watch their team play — and eventually advance.
Game in and game out, UNM fans have been loud, letting out chants early and often and making their presence felt over the teams' first two victories. And with a shot at a conference title and a chance to make the big dance, they should be there on Saturday too — perhaps louder than ever.
Chris Rothenberger is a UNM fan — and a proud one at that he said, having attending the tournament 10 times or so, by his recollection. He said, expectations were next to none coming into the tournament, partly because of the fact that the program was born anew after the hiring of head coach Paul Weir and addition of so many new players.
Rothenberger said he wasn’t ready to feel any pressure of expecting the Lobos to reach the championship game on the team. But on Friday, Rothenberger, and many other Lobo fans, were filled with glee.
“The feelings are a feeling of pride, a feeling of knowing what we’re doing,” he said. “This coach is amazing. He has everyone dialed in. If they practice tomorrow, that means we’re going to win tomorrow night.”
And that sentiment rang true for other Lobo fans, too.
Mike Garcia and Shirley Yirmeyahu, both fans of UNM, drove into Vegas today from Albuquerque, New Mexico to support the Lobos against Utah State. In fact, the two said it was a last minute decision — one they made after watching the Lobos down Wyoming the night before.
Garcia said that he and Yirmeyahu decided that they’d check out of work early and make their way out to Vegas and see their Lobos — the win and advancement to the championship game was just a bonus.
Garcia said a big reason for the spontaneous trip was because of the product on the floor — the way the team competes.
“I’ll tell you what, we’ll run the legs off of anybody,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s going to get us the win…they may not be the most skilled players out there, but they have the biggest heart.”
Other fans, however, expected the Lobos to be in the championship game. Gerald Garcia, who’s from Albuquerque by way of Santa Fe, said on Thursday, prior to UNM’s matchup against Wyoming, that he knew his team would be playing come Saturday afternoon.
Richard Berry, the former mayor of Albuquerque, was also in Vegas to support the team. On Thursday, he lamented the sentiment that UNM, in fact, was very capable of making the championship game.
“I think coach has them playing at a high level,” Berry said on Thursday. “And I think they really, as young men, have come together and really understand each other. You can see it on the floor.
“So we’re very optimistic. We got the hotel for three nights, let’s hope we need it.”
No hope needed. The Lobos have apparently arrived.
Matthew Narvaiz is a senior sports reporter for the Daily Lobo. He primarily covers men’s and women’s basketball, and baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @matt_narvaiz.