Heartfire give Enchantment the boot 79-74 in TBT

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Jul. 20—ALBUQUERQUE — Kenny Thomas can count on one hand the number of losses he experienced in The Pit during his time as a Lobo.

He can add one more after Tuesday's loss in The Basketball Tournament, the $1 million winner-take-all event that has showcased the University of New Mexico's famous arena the past few days. Coaching a team of mostly ex-Lobos, Thomas and the rest of The Enchantment was sent packing in a 79-74 loss to Team Heartfire in the tournament's second round.

As deflating setbacks go, this one doesn't rank anywhere near the top for Thomas. He experienced a few of the brutally painful kind during his time with UNM, not to mention his 11-year NBA career.

Monday's loss was a byproduct of shoddy defense, an inability to shake off Heartfire's physical play, and player rotations that seemed to be ineffective at times.

It all added up to an early exit, one game short of the New Mexico Regional final Thursday that now sends Heartfire against the L.A. Cheaters. The Cheaters beat top-seeded Team Challenge ALS in Tuesday's other game, setting up a regional final that will have a hard time drawing the same types of crowds that filed into a sweltering Pit.

Monday's Enchantment game drew nearly 4,000 fans. Tuesday's just over 2,000.

"I think it was just as loud and we had just as much support [Tuesday]," Thomas said. "I hope they continue to come."

The fans certainly got their money's worth in the first half. After The Enchantment built an early 25-9 lead, Heartfelt battled back by turning up the intensity at both ends of the court. They played physical, in-your-face defense on The Enchantment's guard rotation led by Scott Bamforth and Anthony Mathis.

Bamforth had a team-high 22 points but he was constantly fighting through arm-bars, hard screens and defenders who stayed on his hip all night. He managed to make seven of 10 shots from the field, half a dozen of them from 3-point land.

He was also in the middle of a scrum that quickly escalated out of control with 3:27 left in the first half. He was involved in some pushing and shoving that led the ejection of Heartfelt coach LaPhonso Ellis.

Ellis walked across the court to de-escalate a situation that was on the verge of getting out of hand. As he did, he exchanged words with The Enchantment's Joe Furstinger and shoved Furstinger in the chest.

The crowd went wild and the game was delayed for several minutes as the referees watched video replays. With the crowd chanting "Throw him out, throw him out," and Enchantment players waving their arms toward the locker room as if to give Ellis the heave-ho, the Heartfelt coach did get the boot.

As he left he stopped to exchange a few words with Thomas and several players on The Enchantment bench, including Furstinger and Drew Gordon. While Furstinger and Thomas appeared to have no issues, Gordon refused to shake hands and simply backed off.

"I'm ashamed of my behavior," Ellis said.

A former star player at Norte Dame, he said he retreated to the team's locker room and simply listened to the crowd as the game unfolded. While the game was aired on national TV by ESPN, Ellis said he kept his eyes closed and head down for most of the night.

It wasn't until Heartfire's general manager approached him after the final buzzer that he learned his team had lived to see another day.

Whether certain Enchantment players and personnel return for another shot at TBT in 2023 remains to be seen. Thomas said he'd be happy to get another chance to coach the team, assuming it gets even more support from the local community and its businesses.

Former Lobo and NBA veteran J.R. Giddens said he's on the fence about returning. Having retired from the game a few years ago, he is currently the women's basketball coach at Northern New Mexico College in Española. He had 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds on Tuesday.

"You guys can tell, I'm an emotional player," he said. "To be 37 years old and not be a LeBron James and not have 2-point-some million dollars to put into my body, I had a lot of fun out there tonight."

Bamforth said he'd be back next year. He also had a prediction for Giddens.

"My man J.R., he will be back next year, too," he said.

Enchantment led 36-35 at halftime, using a 6-0 run after the Ellis ejection but then allowing a 9-1 Heartfire run to close the half. Bamforth and Mathis combined for a flurry of outside shots to open the second half and build an eight-point lead, but Heartfire again rallied and carried the lead into the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

With guard play an issue for the ex-Lobos — Jamal Fenton, Dairese Gary and Philip McDonald all played fewer than 10 minutes and combined for just nine points — Heartfire guard Eric Washington went off for 26 points and ended the game with a transition layup to get the clinching points.

"Not a great way to [lose], on a layup," Thomas said.

NOTES

Home cooking: Thomas was a Lobo from 1995-99. He lost just three home games in The Pit in his four seasons with UNM.

Quick start: The Enchantment led 14-1 in the game's first five minutes.