The Utah basketball team has been playing a lot of "final" games at visiting arenas this year.
But Saturday's game against New Mexico will be a bit different.
For 45 straight years, the Utah basketball team has been going to Albuquerque to play games at University Arena, more famously known as "The Pit." That's longer than any other arena, including the Marriott Center in Provo, which didn't open until 1971. The Pit is an iconic arena, once listed by Sports Illustrated as No. 13 on the list of top sporting venues in the world in the past century.
Of course, the Utes will still be going to the Marriott Center every other year in the near future. But no longer going to Colorado State's Moby Gym or the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie or Air Force's Clune Arena or TCU's Daniel Meyer Coliseum won't be a big deal, nor will no more games in San Diego, which didn't start attracting fans at Viejas Arena, formerly known as Cox Arena, until the last couple of years.
The Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas? The Utes have played some memorable games there, including some in postseason tournament play. However, they have only been going to the T&M since 1997, 30 years less than The Pit.
The Pit opened in December 1966 with a roof being built before a 37-foot-deep hole was dug underneath it. It cost just $2 million at the time and, in 1975, 2,300 seats were added to bring it to its 18,018 capacity. The most famous game ever played there was the 1983 NCAA Championship game, won by Jim Valvano's North Carolina State team over a heavily favored Houston squad.
The Utes and Lobos first played at The Pit on Feb. 25, 1967, with New Mexico taking a 64-56 win over Jack Gardner's Runnin' Redskins, led by Merv Jackson.
It took nine years before the Utes would finally win at The Pit, when Buster Matheney, Jeff Jonas and Jeff Judkins led the Utes to a 73-69 victory. Over the years, the Utes and Lobos have played 47 games at The Pit, including WAC Tournament games, with the Utes winning just 12 times.
Ironically, the Utes' final regular-season game at The Pit will take place following a massive $60 million renovation that has taken a couple of years to complete.
No longer does The Pit resemble a rectangular warehouse with metal siding. It's been transformed into an attractive, glass-enclosed structure with athletic offices on the east side and luxury boxes on the inside. Because of the new luxury boxes, the capacity of the arena has dropped to 15,400.
Ute coach Jim Boylen considers The Pit "top 10 in the country for atmosphere, environment and loudness." He recalls playing the Lobos in 2009, Utah's championship year, in the final game before the renovation was started.
"That's the loudest I've ever heard anywhere," he said. "You couldn't hear yourself think in there."
The Utes and Lobos have had numerous memorable encounters at The Pit, but here are 10 of the best:
Feb. 1, 1998 — New Mexico 78, Utah 75
Ute fans will always remember this one as "The Mugging."
The Utes had come into this nationally televised Sunday afternoon game undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the country. This was the team that would go on to play in the NCAA finals seven weeks later. The Lobos had a 37-game home winning streak, second-longest in the nation.
Utah led from the opening tipoff and was still up 69-60 with just under three minutes left. It was 71-65 when Andre Miller appeared to be hit in the eye on a steal by Royce Olney with 1:35 left. Then with 59 seconds left and Utah leading 73-69 came the play that all of Utedom will never get over.
As Miller brought the ball up, Olney ran into him in the backcourt and inadvertently knocked Miller on the back of the head. Then, with Miller still lying on the floor, he grabbed the ball and sank a 3-pointer to cut the lead to one.
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