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Utah Utes basketball: Top 10 Utah-New Mexico contests in 'The Pit'

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 7:41 a.m. MDT

Utah forward Hanno Mottola gets blocked by New Mexico forward Kenny Thomas during the infamous 1998 Ute loss in 'The Pit.' the second half of Sunday, Feb. 1, 1998's game at the Pit in Albuquerque.  (Chuck Wing, Dnews) Utah forward Hanno Mottola gets blocked by New Mexico forward Kenny Thomas during the infamous 1998 Ute loss in 'The Pit.' the second half of Sunday, Feb. 1, 1998's game at the Pit in Albuquerque. (Chuck Wing, Dnews)

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.

Miller lay on the floor for two minutes and though Miller and Michael Doleac complained later ("Andre doesn't turn the ball over — it's hard for me to believe he dropped it twice in a row," said Doleac), the Utes never recovered.

Alex Jensen and Drew Hansen each missed free throws in the final minute and Doleac was out-muscled for a key rebound by Kenny Thomas. Olney finished the Utes off with another 3-pointer with five seconds left.

Later, WAC commissioner Karl Benson told the Albuquerque Journal, "A foul should have been called."

Even Olney acknowledged, "There were some questionable calls, but that's the way it goes."

Feb. 26, 1983 — Utah 62, New Mexico 61

Trailing by one point with five seconds left, Utah senior guard Pace Mannion drove the length of the floor and scored at the buzzer to give the Utes a 62-61 victory.

Mannion acknowledged after the game that he was inspired by a similar drive BYU's Danny Ainge had made two years earlier against Notre Dame in an NCAA game. Besides Mannion's 13 points, fellow senior Peter Williams had 15 and freshman George Furgis scored 10 for the Utes, who stayed alive at 9-5 in the WAC race, in which they'd eventually tie for first.

Jan. 17, 1981 — Utah 82, New Mexico 76 (OT)

The 14-1 Utes were favored against the 6-7 Lobos, but had to fight and scratch to eke out an overtime victory. Danny Vranes scored 24 points to lead Utah, while Tom Chambers had 23 for the Utes, who also got 14 points from Scott Martin.

Utah didn't lead until there was 9:46 left in the game and needed a free throw by Chambers to send the game into overtime. In the extra period, Karl Bankowski, Martin, Vranes and Craig Hammer each scored as the Utes outscored the Lobos 12-6.

March 10, 1995 — Utah 86, New Mexico 50

A WAC Tournament semifinal game on the Lobos' home court should have been competitive, even if the Utes came in with a 25-5 record as the league's No. 1 seed.

However, the Utes jumped out to a 42-19 lead behind Brandon Jessie, who nearly outscored the Lobos in the first half by himself with 18 of his career-high 28 points.

The 36-point loss was New Mexico's worst in the Pit.

Jan. 28, 1978 — New Mexico 113, Utah 89

This turned out to be the largest margin of victory ever at The Pit for the Lobos over the Utes. And it came against one of Utah's better ballclubs, a 23-6 team led by Jeff Judkins and Buster Matheney that went to the NCAA Sweet 16. Colorful Norm Ellenberger was the coach of a run n' gun Lobo team that raced out to a 17-point halftime advantage and eventually led by as much as 30. Marvin Johnson led the Lobos with 23 points, while future NBAer Michael Cooper had 19. A month later in Salt Lake, the Utes took an exciting 95-92 victory.

Jan. 9, 1971 — New Mexico 78, Utah 77

With 23 seconds left and the Lobos leading by one, 76-75, Utah coach Jack Gardner was given a technical foul when Eddie Trail was called for a deliberate foul on Petie Gibson from behind. But the Lobos missed three straight free throws, giving Utah life. However, Ken Gardner was called for an offensive foul and the Utes had to foul the Lobos, who made two free throws to put the game away before a last-second bucket by Mike Newlin.

Feb. 21, 2005 — New Mexico 65, Utah 54

Behind future national player of the year Andrew Bogut, the No. 12-ranked Utes rode an 18-game winning streak into Albuquerque, only to see the Lobos take a 65-54 victory behind Mark Walters and Danny Granger. It was the highlight of the short career of coach Ritchie McKay, who aggravated Ute fans with a midcourt dance during a late timeout.

Feb. 2, 1995 — Utah 95, New Mexico 91 (OT)

It took until his sixth season for Rick Majerus to get a win at The Pit, as freshman Michael Doleac scored 17 points and the Utes got key baskets from Mark Rydalch, Brandon Jessie and Keith Van Horn. The Lobos tied it with one second left on two free throws by freshman Royce Olney (him again), but the Utes dominated the overtime. A month later came the 36-point whipping by the Utes in the WAC Tournament.

Feb. 2, 1991 — New Mexico 68, Utah 62 (OT)

Utah's 17-game winning streak came to a crashing halt as Luc Longley led the Lobos' overtime win. Leading by nine points early in the second half, the Utes only made two free throws over a 12-minute stretch as UNM opened a seven-point lead. Josh Grant had 22 points and 10 rebounds but only played 25 minutes because of fatigue.

March 3, 2001 — Utah 66, New Mexico 61

Two days after an embarrassing loss at Air Force, the Utes, under interim coach Dick Hunsaker, upset the Lobos to grab a share of the MWC title and the No. 1 seed in the MWC Tournament. After missing 13 of their first 21 free throws, the Utes sank seven straight down the stretch, including two by Travis Spivey with 10 seconds left, to put the Utes up three.

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