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NCAA tourney sparks basketball fever in New Mexico

  • Article by: RUSSELL CONTRERAS
  • Associated Press
  • March 19, 2013 - 10:00 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - With some of their strongest teams in years, New Mexico and New Mexico State are creating quite the NCAA tournament buzz across the state.

Mountain West Conference champion and No. 3 seed New Mexico (29-5) is in the West Regional and will face No. 14 seed Harvard (19-9), the Ivy League champions, on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Behind Kendall Williams and Tony Snell, this could be the best Lobos squad since Norm Ellenberger's teams in the late 1970s.

Meanwhile in the southern part of the state, residents are celebrating No. 13 New Mexico State (24-10), the champion of the Western Athletic Conference. The Aggies face fourth-seeded Saint Louis (27-6) in their Midwest Regional opener in San Jose, Calif.

"It's amazing. The whole state is excited," said 33-year-old Todd Johnson, owner of Dos Hermanos burrito shop in Albuquerque. "It's bringing us all together."

In a state where high school basketball games regularly sell out on American Indian reservations and a friendly game between state lawmakers draws fans from isolated regions, having two of its biggest universities in the tournament for the second year in a row has sparked excitement from Albuquerque to Las Cruces. Two teams entering the tournament as back-to-back champions of their respective conference also has generated hope that both could make deep runs this year.

"Sweet 16. That's what I'm hoping for," said Christa Lloyd, a 20-year-old junior at New Mexico. "They've never made it that far and I think they can do it."

In Las Cruces, dozens of students and fans showed up Tuesday to send off New Mexico State players heading to California. During the NCAA's selection for the tournament, thousands of fans crowded the Pit in Albuquerque with Lobos players to watch a live feed on where and when the Lobos would play.

Stores across the state were reporting an uptick in sales of New Mexico and New Mexico State gear in preparation for the games later this week.

"I'm pretty excited," said Francisco Garcia, 31, a doctoral organizational learning student at UNM as he shopped for a Lobos shirt. "I'm from Colorado but I'll be cheering for the Lobos."

Johnson, who traveled to Las Vegas to watch New Mexico win the Mountain West title last week, said it was nice to see fans from his state all around Sin City.

"People who normally wouldn't talk to you were coming up and having 20 minute conversations about basketball," Johnson said.

Come Thursday, he'll be watching both games and cheering on both teams, especially the Lobos.

"I might close early," he said.

While New Mexico can bask in having two teams in the NCAAs, things are very different next door. Not a single team from neighboring Texas is in the tournament for the first time since 1977. There will be no Longhorns, Baylor Bears, Texas A&M Aggies, Red Raiders or Owls.

And not even any UTEP Miners.

"Oh well," Johnson said.

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Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at http://twitter.com/russcontreras

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