Lobos, Aggies alumni teams to battle in The Basketball Tournament

·5 min read

Jun. 23—A year ago, New Mexico jumped in on the growing excitement surrounding a winner-take-all event called The Basketball Tournament.

This year, the stakes are raised.

There are now two New Mexico teams in the 64-team bracket, and The Pit will be a host site for one of eight regionals that begin July 18.

The Albuquerque region was announced Wednesday morning, with the mostly-UNM alumni team, the Enchantment, competing against New Mexico State's version, nicknamed the Panamaniacs, to open the tournament.

The Basketball Tournament — or TBT — is an open-application, single-elimination tournament that is in its ninth year. Teams compete in a winner-takes-all format with the tournament champion getting a $1 million pot.

Last year, Enchantment was the lone New Mexico entry and suffered the ignominy of blowing a 23-point, third-quarter lead in an 84-83 loss to the Stillwater Stars in an opening-round matchup in Wichita, Kan.

This year, the two in-state teams will face one another in the signature game for the opening set in the regional, playing at 8 p.m. July 18 as the 4-versus-5 seeding matchup. The game ensures the state will advance at least to the Round of 32, but the in-state rivalry between Lobos and Aggies will certainly ratchet up in intensity in the coming weeks.

It started playfully with the news conference Wednesday. Panamaniacs assistant coach and former NMSU player Michael Nanez welcomed the opportunity to play the Enchantment in a hostile environment, adding it will be great to end the playing career of 37-year-old UNM alum and Northern New Mexico College head women's basketball coach J.R Giddens in the process.

"It may be legendary, because it's J.R.'s last year," Nanez said, as he nodded in Giddens' direction. "What better way to send him off than losing to the Panamaniacs?"

At the center of the Aggies-Lobos alumni rivalry was Brandon Mason. Not only is he the general manager of both teams, he also played for the Aggies from 1999-2003 and was an assistant coach at both schools.

Now running the Albuquerque Basketball Prep School, Mason gave little hint to where his loyalties will lie. That was evident, thanks to Enchantment head coach Kenny Thomas.

"We just found out that this guy might be in our locker room before the game and their locker room at halftime," Thomas said.

And whose locker room will Mason attend after the game?

"Ours," Thomas said.

The news conference was not just a chance to find out the schedule of games for the opening round and unveil Enchantment's full roster. It was also a chance for UNM and NMSU alumni to drum up interest for the regional.

Giddens said the level of play fans will see for the regional might be the highest they will see in The Pit. He pointed to the number of players in the tournament who have NBA or professional experience from across the globe.

"You have so much pro experience, a lot of older players, and you have guys like Kenny and [LaPhonso Ellis, coach of the No. 1 Team Heartfire who played 11 seasons in the NBA]," Giddens said. "Guys with NBA experience and coaching experience. So it's going to be high-level coaches and high-level players."

Thomas said it was a great opportunity for the local community to come out and show support, and he recalled the great atmosphere The Pit once had.

"Basketball is huge [in New Mexico] and it needs to get back to where it used to be, when the basketball program was very active and alive," Thomas said. "This is a very unique opportunity, being able to bring TBT here, which is huge because we want them to come back and we want to put on a show."

Last year's team did that for 21/2 quarters, building a 72-49 lead late in the third before scoring just 11 points the rest of the way.

Most of the Enchantment squad returns, including Giddens, Roman Martinez (who played for the Lobos from 2006-10), Darington Hobson (2009-10), Phillip McDonald (2008-12), Drew Gordon (2010-12) and Anthony Mathis (2015-19).

This year's team has a few new faces: Joe Furstinger (2014-18), Elijah Brown (2015-17) and Dairese Gary (2007-11). The roster also includes Albuquerque Del Norte graduate Scott Bamforth, who played at Weber State and plays professionally in Europe.

The Panamaniacs features former Aggies stars Wendell McKines (2008-12), Johnny McCants (2018-22), Jahmar Young (2008-10) and Justin Hawkins (2007-08). They will be coached by NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia.

NOTES: The top seed in the Albuquerque regional is Team Heartfire, which has a roster mostly filled with players from the Team 23 roster that reached the TBT championship game in 2021. No. 2 seed Team Challenge ALS is coached by former UCLA star and NBA player Darren Collison, and is playing to raise money for ALS research. ... The L.A. Cheaters, the No. 3 seed, is known for competing in the prominent pro-am Drew League. The No. 6 and 7 seeds (Ram Up and Once A Bronco) are alumni teams from Colorado State (Ram Up) and Boise State. Competitive Choice, the eighth seed, is a first-year team based out of Houston.