"We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it's our job to invent something better."
- North Dakota's team profile on Basketball State.
A name. An identity. It's your badge, your being. Without a name, what do you become? Are you forever indeterminate, anonymous, without shape or definition? Or do you rise above labels and become something more than you were?
The University of North Dakota -- formerly the Fighting Sioux, but without an official nickname since January 1st -- had a chance to make a statement of their future intentions against the New Mexico Lobos on Saturday afternoon. UND's recent history, however, was less than encouraging. They came into Albuquerque with a 6-8 record, but all six of their victories had come at the friendly confines of the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center in Grand Forks. They had played seven games away from home, and had lost all seven by an average of 18 points. This had all the markings of a guarantee game, meant only to fill in the blanks in everyone's schedule. However, that didn't mean that this match was without a backstory. North Dakota's head coach Brian Jones would be reuniting with his former mentor, New Mexico head coach Steve Alford. Jones had worked on Alford's staff at Southwest Missouri State and later at Iowa before he made the move to Grand Forks in 2006, and while the two coaches have remained on friendly terms (Alford follows Jones' results and calls him after important victories), North Dakota didn't come to The Pit to catch up on old times.
I hadn't planned on going to The Pit for this game myself. Most games I am able to attend are with my stepfather, who has New Mexico season tickets, and since I was fortunate enough to watch Houston Baptist on Tuesday night, the plan was for my mother and stepfather to go see North Dakota play on Saturday afternoon. Of course, that's the thing about plans -- they have a way of changing. My mother had other priorities to attend to, so my stepfather had an extra ticket -- and I had an afternoon to fill. Let's watch some basketball.
My stepfather and I arrived fashionably early, as North Dakota was finishing their initial warm-up. The seating bowl of The Pit was rather empty, even for 30 minutes before tip-off. Since I'd neglected to eat before coming to the game, I decided to canvas the concourse for a quick lunch. If this were the pre-renovated Pit, my choices would have consisted of a Lobo Dog (not with mesquite-grilled onions, jalapeńo relish, or mango-lime salsa, regretfully) or...a Lobo Dog. Now that The Pit has undergone $60 million in renovations, the culinary selections are as endless as the Red Line. Mexican food, pizza, hamburgers, chicken fingers -- and barbecue. I decided that barbecue would be a good option, so I bought what I was told was a brisket sandwich and a bottle of water.
"That'll be eleven dollars, sir."
The next thing I remember is being in my seat, having just devoured an average barbecue sandwich and nursing a bottle of Aquafina. Guess I just helped pay for a section of ribbon board - or maybe the fire alarm system. There are ways to tell when you're at a Red Line school. Easy ways. Among the easiest are the price and variety of their concessions.
The New Mexico student section, to their credit, showed up as they have for every game during the winter holiday break -- surprisingly well. Several rows of red- and grey-clad collegians were braying at the North Dakota layup lines as the team came out for final warmups (although to our fans' credit, no one booed the team this time around). Having read the preview of today's game in the Albuquerque Journal (a preview which identified North Dakota's head coach as Kevin Davis), they were armed with the knowledge that North Dakota no longer had a mascot or nickname -- and their resident whiteboard savant would focus on that fact throughout the afternoon. "North Dakota Fighting ...?" "Maybe you should be the Snowflakes..." ...and so on. It was better than relying on a stable of hackneyed North Dakota jokes that were really Minnesota jokes -- unfortunately, those would come later.
The tip came, and was won by New Mexico, but both sides came out high-strung: North Dakota committed three turnovers in their first three possessions, but New Mexico refused to take advantage of UND's kindness, missing alley-oops and giving the ball back to the green and black. North Dakota's leading scorer, guard Toby Huff would break the deadlock with a driving three-point play 100 seconds in, giving UND a 3-0 lead. New Mexico drew even, but Huff continued his aggressive drive play, putting the visitors up 5-3.
The home Lobos quickly shot ahead on a 10-3 run, with former UCLA Bruin Kendall Williams assuming the role of long-distance assassin with three #superhoops, but the visitors from Grand Forks refused to fold early in the first half. Down 15-10, North Dakota dove after loose balls, gained second chances, and found a mismatch in the post: 5-foot-9 Jamal Fenton was, for some reason, defending 6-foot-8 Patrick Mitchell. Mitchell drew a foul, made both shots, and murmurs of discontent could be heard at The Pit. New Mexico forced a turnover, and went for an alley-oop...but in the defensive play of the game for the former Sioux, Jamal Webb pogoed skyward and took the ball away, passing it immediately upcourt to Toby Huff for an easy lay-up. 15-14 New Mexico, with under 12 minutes left in the first half.
As has been the case in the past several New Mexico home games, however, there would be a point where the Lobos would make a run. This was that time. Tony Snell hit a fall-away (and fall-over) three, and senior Philip McDonald scorched the nets from distance as well. 21-14 New Mexico in the blink of an eye, and Brian Jones was forced to call a timeout. The student section whiteboard: "Want to go back to Coach Alford's staff?" Somehow I think Jones was more than secure with a head coaching position of his own.
Huff would continue to give New Mexico fits with his productive drives to the basket, and Mitchell delivered two #superhoops of his own, but the home Lobos were able to maintain their margins over North Dakota. They would take their largest lead of the first half with their last basket, a Drew Gordon layup to stretch the halftime score to 41-31. Huff had 14 points, and Mitchell had 10 of his own. The other blackshirts struggled to make a notable contribution, but North Dakota, a team with a history of poor performances away from Grand Forks, were giving a proper account of themselves in the first 20 minutes of their day away at The Pit. As is so often the case when we're dealing with the Red Line, though, things fall apart in the second 20 minutes.
North Dakota's shooting touch remained with them for the first four minutes of the final frame, but New Mexico was able to hold North Dakota and build their lead out to a 17-point cushion -- and then Drew Gordon drew a foul on North Dakota's Mitch Wilmer, his fourth. A scuffle broke out between the two players,and after a conference amongst the replay monitors by the referees, Wilmer was issued a technical foul, ending his afternoon. It wasn't a crippling loss for UND -- the team had height and bulk available on the bench when it needed reinforcements. However, the personal and technical fouls gave New Mexico four free throws and possession of the ball, and the Lobos would take full advantage, making all four foul shots and getting a two-point basket from the scourge of Grand Forks, Kendall Williams.
The home Lobos had stretched their lead to 64-40 with just over 12 minutes remaining in the game, and from that point, the two teams played out the stretch. Huff would snake through the lane to finish with a game-high 22 points, but UND had no reinforcements in a turgid second half. Mitchell's hot hand abandoned him, and no other player managed to break double figures in points, although benchman Doug Archer scored nine points in the second half in an attempt to keep his side close. Section 26, the student section for the Lobos, were reduced to making signs about potential majors at UND: ice fishing, ice road trucking...you get the idea. Once the eight-minute media timeout came, the majority of New Mexico fans majored in one thing: leaving the scene of the crime as quickly as their feet could carry them.
As the final horn sounded on an 85-57 New Mexico victory, one thing was clear to this fan: North Dakota may no longer have a mascot or a nickname -- and they may remain nameless until 2015 if the North Dakota legislature has their way. However, they haven't lost their identity. If one is looking to assign them a name, perhaps Pride would be fitting. North Dakota, despite their lack of comparable talent to New Mexico, had every bit as much desire and commitment as their Red Line foes. Pride won't win games by itself, but North Dakota have a foundation to build on, and success in Our Game doesn't come from talent as much as desire. As much as Pride.
at NEW MEXICO 85, NORTH DAKOTA 57 01/07/2012
NORTH DAKOTA 6-9 (0-0) -- P. Mitchell 4-8 3-4 14; T. Huff 8-20 4-6 22; J. Webb 0-7 0-0 0; J. Schuler 0-3 0-0 0; A. Anderson 1-5 0-0 3; J. Allard 2-5 0-2 4; B. Brekke 1-1 0-0 2; S. Goodman 0-2 0-0 0; M. Mathison 0-1 2-4 2; M. Wilmer 0-1 1-2 1; D. Archer 4-5 0-0 9; N. Haugen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-58 10-18 57. NEW MEXICO 14-2 (0-0) -- T. Snell 3-6 4-5 12; D. Gordon 4-9 2-2 10; K. Williams 8-12 1-3 21; J. Fenton 4-8 0-0 11; D. Walker 3-6 5-6 12; C. Adams 3-4 0-0 6; C. Bairstow 0-1 0-0 0; A. Hardeman 0-3 3-4 3; P. McDonald 3-6 3-4 10; D. Dunning 0-2 0-0 0; C. Perez 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-57 18-24 85.
Three-point goals: NDAK 7-20 (J. Schuler 0-2; D. Archer 1-1; P. Mitchell 3-7; A. Anderson 1-2; T. Huff 2-6; J. Webb 0-2), NM 11-23 (P. McDonald 1-3; C. Adams 0-1; J. Fenton 3-6; D. Walker 1-3; K. Williams 4-6; T. Snell 2-4); Rebounds: NDAK 35 (T. Huff 8), NM 32 (D. Gordon 10); Assists: NDAK 12 (J. Webb 6), NM 20 (J. Fenton 6); Total Fouls -- NDAK 22, NM 14; Fouled Out: NDAK-B. Brekke; NM-None.