Stevens: The Pit & The NCAA Have a History Of Special Moments

Feb. 14, 2012

NCAA Men's Basketball -- In The Pit -- March 15-17

Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

What's not to like about the magical combination of The Pit and NCAA basketball? Consider just a few of the show stoppers who have walked down the ramp into this special hole of basketball passion:

Lew Alcinder, Jim Valvano, Bobby Knight, Bob King, Dereck Whittenburg, Lorenzo Charles, Sidney Moncrief, Akeem Olajuwon, Calbert Cheaney, Clyde Drexler, Ron Nelson - just to name a few.

Of course, these legends of hoops have made NCAA basketball in The Pit special and memorable, but as all Lobo fans know, The Pit's heart is the Sixth Man.

That Sixth Man - on NCAA sabbatical since 2005 -- gets another chance to soak in NCAA moments when the University of New Mexico and dolled up University Arena host first- and second-round battles in 2012's dance to New Orleans. The Pit games will be played March 15 (Thursday) and March 17 (Saturday).

As they used to say: be there or be square - and beware of the special moments you might miss, if you aren't there.

It's quite possible that The Pit has seen:
1. The greatest NCAA college team ever.
2. The greatest Cinderella team ever.
3. The greatest dunk ever.
4. The greatest collage of facial contortions ever.

THE TEAM: It was 1968 and the UCLA Bruins led by a lean Lew Alcinder (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Lucius Allen and Mike Warren rolled into The Pit and rolled New Mexico State and Santa Clara on their way to the 1968 title.

The Bruins later beat No. 1 ranked Houston and Elvin Hayes 101-69 in the semis and beat Dean Smith and North Carolina 78-55 in the finals. Houston had won its previous three games by 18, 16 and 35 points before UCLA stomped the Cougars by 32 points.

The Lobos had a chance to play the Bruins in the second round of that regional, but lost 86-73 to Santa Clara. The Lobos were handicapped in that tourney as their star center, Greg "Stretch" Howard was not allowed to play due to an NCAA rule at the time that forbade transfers from playing in postseason games.

Ugh - the Howard-less Lobos, who had beaten NMSU twice in regular season, lost to the Aggies in the consolation game - a part of the bracket that no longer exists.

THE CINDERELLA: The Pit saw an eventual NCAA champion again, but this Cinderella finalized the title in Albuquerque when Jim Valvano, Dereck Whittenburg and Lorenzo Charles jammed their feet into the glass slipper with a 54-52 win over Akeem Olajuwon and Houston's Phi Slama Jama bunch.

North Carolina State not only wasn't supposed to beat Houston, but they weren't supposed to be in the NCAA field, period. They finished the regular season 17-10 and had to win the ACC tournament to get an invite and that tourney win came over Michael Jordon and North Carolina and Ralph Sampson and Virginia.

Valvano's pack then scratched their way into The Pit with a few other miracle wins: double-overtime over Pepperdine, 71-70 over No. 3 UNLV and 63-62 over Sampson and Virginia.

There are few NCAA moments - if any - more etched into Final Four lore than Valvano's delirious dance across The Pit floor looking for somebody to hug.

THE DUNK: The dunk led to Valvano's dash across The Pit floor. Whittenburg was looking to take a final shot, but momentarily lost control of the ball. He recovered and launched very close to the same spot that Lobo Petie Gibson once used to break the NMSU Aggies' heart. Whittenburg's bomb was short and to the right, but Charles rose up like Jaws to throw down the jam.

And Valvano danced.

THE FACE: If you missed this, it's on YouTube. Search: "Bobby Knight Game Face." This was Knight's answer to a local reporter's question about whether Indiana had its game face on for The Pit event. Knight, no beauty on a good day, threw out a series of facial contortions that went national.

Knight also went national in that event when he took a bull whip onto the practice court and mock whipped Calbert Cheaney. Knight earlier had taken the whip into the interview room where the NCAA coaches met with the media.

The Pit has hosted nine men's NCAA events: 1968, 1978, 1983, 1985, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2002 and 2005. The teams that left Albuquerque as winners were: UCLA, North Carolina State, Indiana, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Arizona and Louisville.

The Lobos, ranked No. 3, were supposed to use the 1978 West Regional in The Pit to advance to the Final Four in St Louis. They got spanked a round earlier by an underrated Cal State Fullerton team.

Steve Alford's Lobos, if they make the field, will not be allowed to use The Pit's warmth to advance in NCAA play. But the NCAA, when possible, likes to keep teams in their geographical area. Some of the Top 25 teams not too far away from The Pit include San Diego State, UNLV and Baylor.

Of course, there are no promises that The Pit will produce champions, new faces, or future Cinderellas. But March Madness is a special time and one of the paths to New Orleans begins with a walk down The Pit's ramp.

Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former sports columnist and Associate Sports Editor with The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net.

The NCAA in The Pit

1968 West Regional
UCLA 58, New Mexico State 49
Santa Clara 86, New Mexico 73
New Mexico State 62, New Mexico 58
UCLA 87, Santa Clara 66

1978 West Regional
Arkansas 74, UCLA 70
Cal State Fullerton 75, San Francisco 72
Arkansas 61, Cal State Fullerton 58

2005 NCAA action in The Pit


1983 Final Four
North Carolina State 67, Georgia 60
Houston 94, Louisville 81
North Carolina State 54, Houston 52

1985 West First & Second Rounds
Texas-El Paso 79, Tulsa 75
North Carolina State 65, Nevada 56
Alabama 50, Arizona 41
Virginia Commonwealth 81, Marshall 65
Alabama 63, Virginia Commonwealth 59
North Carolina State 86, Texas-El Paso 73

1992 West Regional
Indiana 85, Florida State 74
UCLA 85, New Mexico State 78
Indiana 106, UCLA 79

1996 West First & Second Rounds
Syracuse 88, Montana State 55
Drexel 75, Memphis 63
Purdue 73, Western Carolina 71
Georgia 81, Clemson 74
Georgia 76, Purdue 69
Syracuse 69, Drexel 58

2000 West Regional
Wisconsin 61, LSU 48
Purdue 75, Gonzaga 66
Wisconsin 64, Purdue 60

2002 First and Second Rounds
Missouri 93, Miami (Fla.) 80
Ohio State 69, Davidson 64
Wyoming 73, Gonzaga 66
Arizona 86, UC Santa Barbara 81
Missouri 83, Ohio State 67
Arizona 68, Wyoming 60

2005 Albuquerque Regional
Louisville 93, Washington 79
West Virginia 65, Texas Tech 60
Louisville 93, West Virginia 85 (OT)