If history has shown anything, it’s that the National Invitation Tournament favors those who keep the turnstiles spinning.
The more fans a team draws, the more likely it is to stay at home as the event unfolds. That’s true for the men’s and women’s tournaments, each of which will determine its final four by week’s end.
The University of New Mexico women’s basketball team is hoping to be one of those clubs still standing. The road getting there, however, gets considerably tougher after the Lobos opened the tournament with a pair of wins in the friendly confines of The Pit.
UNM (26-9) travels to Oregon State (16-13) on Thursday night in Corvallis, Ore. Tipoff is slated for 8 pm and will be livestreamed on the Pac-12 Network’s online platform.
The matchup may have left a few Lobos fans scratching their heads. UNM has consistently been one of the nation’s top 20 in terms of attendance, regularly drawing in the area of 5,100 fans per game. Turns out, Oregon State is one of the few schools west of the Mississippi who draw even more.
The Beavers ranked 15th in overall attendance as recently as three years ago and 4,076 fans this season to rank third in the Pac-12.
“The NIT allows teams to play at home, and there’s some fun to be had,” said Oregon State coach Scott Rueck. “I think they all understood that.”
A win Thursday would be a new single-season wins record for the Lobos, a team that’s seeking its first three-game winning streak since January. They got here by beating Grand Canyon and San Diego in The Pit, combining their usual barrage of 3-pointers with the savvy senior leadership of a starting lineup in which all five average at least 11.3 points and 3.1 rebounds.
One of the main differences between tomorrow’s teams is depth. The Beavers get a combined 20.5 points and
13 rebounds from subs Taylor Jones and Kennedy Brown, a pair of low-post players at least two inches taller than anyone in UNM’s starting lineup.
Simply getting to this point means different things to both teams. The Lobos were in a one-bid league whose only hope of reaching the NCAA Tournament is the conference tournament title. For Oregon State, this year’s WNIT snapped a string of seven straight bids to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s almost like a consolation prize in a way,” Rueck said. “Ultimately you want that [NCAA] tournament; it’s what we’re used to, it’s what we’re all here for.”
The Lobos faced one team from the Pac-12 this season, losing by 17 at Arizona in December. Oregon State won just six games in the Pac-12. The conference got six teams into the Big Dance with two more in the WNIT.
“The way that our Pac-12 schedule evolved this year and the actual schedule that we played, there was no time to breathe for us,” Rueck said. “I mean, it was so relentless with either playing a tournament team on our floor or a tournament team on their home floor is all we played in our conference from middle January on.”
The Beavers played Stanford three times in three weeks and has his sights set on a matchup this weekend against Pac-12 rival UCLA. The Bruins are in the region’s other semifinal Thursday, playing at UNM’s Mountain West rival Wyoming.
“This conference gets you ready,” Reuck said. “We are battle-tested.”