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BYU: Cougars have fond feelings for The Pit

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — BYU's Steve Cleveland remembers with a smile the first time he coached a game at The Pit, and not just because his Cougars stunned nationally ranked New Mexico by 21 points and ended its 41-game homecourt winning streak that night in 1998.

"There was a young man that sat behind our bench. He was dressed quite festively and had a bunch of tattoos," Cleveland recalled this week. "He yelled at me for 40 minutes. He called me every name that you can't print in the newspaper. After the game, which we won, I came out of the locker room and he was waiting for me. He gave me a big hug and told me how impressed he was with my team. It was an amazing experience. That guy has sat behind our bench every time we've played there since then."

Seems like everyone who has attended a basketball game at The Pit has a story, or a memory, about the place. Cleveland and the Cougars will likely add to their collection today (1 p.m., Ch. 14) when they visit the Lobos.

Forward Travis Hansen did not play in the Cougars' victory here last year due to an injury, so he sat on the bench in street clothes. But that doesn't mean he escaped the jeers of the Lobo faithful.

"They've got great fans," Hansen said, laughing. "I had a cast on my foot and I was wearing a turtleneck sweater. The fans were calling me Leonardo DiCaprio during the game."

Three years ago, former Cougar center Bret Jepsen (the older brother of current Cougar Bart Jepsen) shattered the backboard on a putback dunk early in the second half, causing a 30-minute delay. "That happened off of my missed shot," said guard Mark Bigelow, who was a freshman at the time. "I love The Pit. That place has great tradition."

Bigelow added that he and his teammates like to razz assistant coach Dave Rose when they come to Albuquerque. Rose was a member of the 1983 Houston Cougar "Phi Slamma Jamma" squad that lost to North Carolina State in the NCAA championship game at The Pit.

Rose had a front-row seat on the bench for one of the most dramatic endings in NCAA history as Derek Whittenburg's desperation shot fell short of the rim and teammate Lorenzo Charles caught the ball and dunked it at the buzzer. Rose also had a nice view of late Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano cavorting on the floor afterward, searching for somebody to hug.

Senior point guard Matt Montague says that besides the Marriott Center, The Pit is his favorite place to play. "The atmosphere is loud, so that sometimes you can barely hear each other on the court," he said. "The crowd really gets into the game. It's intense."

Of course, the fans are only part of the reason why New Mexico is difficult to beat at The Pit. Perennially, the Lobos have fielded pretty good teams, too.

New Mexico almost beat BYU in the MWC Tournament championship game in Las Vegas last year. Point guard Marlon Parmer, who nailed three 3-pointers that night, missed a 3-point attempt with under 10 seconds remaining and the Cougars leading by two. Had Parmer made the shot, it could have lifted the Lobos to victory. And the Cougars probably wouldn't have gone to the NCAA Tournament.

Parmer is back for New Mexico, in more ways than one. The 6-foot-2 junior missed Monday's 50-47 win over Air Force at The Pit because of a one-game suspension. Montague will draw the assignment of defending Parmer today.

"It's a test and a challenge for me," he said. "Last year (former Cougar) Terrell (Lyday) guarded him. This time, it's totally my assignment. All the hype about him is accurate. He's quick and he penetrates well. The fact he's left-handed makes it tough, too."

It's almost always tough at The Pit. And almost always memorable.

NOTES: BYU has a 12-3 record overall and a 2-0 mark in the Mountain West Conference while New Mexico is 11-4 and 1-0 . . . BYU is 1-3 on the road this season . . . The Cougars have won four straight games over the Lobos.

E-mail: jeffc@desnews.com