Lobo Classics: Royce Olney clutch in win over #3 Utah inside The Pit
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The term “Pit Game” is one that is used by Lobo fans all over to describe what was a great game played inside the fabled confines of “The Pit”. Over the years there have been numerous “Pit Games” that Lobo fans recall with almost perfect memory of what happened, where they sat, how old they were and just how loud The Pit got!
But perhaps there is one “Pit Game” that outshines them all, or at the very least, is the absolute epitome of the term.
That game would of course be the February 1 clash in the 1997-98 season with rival and then-ranked No. 3 Utah. Or as some have come to reference it; “the Royce Olney game.”
While the game itself ended as one of the greatest games ever played in The Pit, the hype leading into the game was almost a story onto its own. Entering the game, Utah was ranked No. 3 in the country and was the last remaining unbeaten team in NCAA Division I that season at 18-0. New Mexico, on the other hand, was 15-3 overall and was ranked No. 14 in the country. The Lobos also possessed the nation’s second-longest home winning streak at that time, 37 games. In fact, the last Lobo loss at home prior to that streak came at the hands of Utah on January 27, 1996.
All of that hype heading into the game set the stage for the epic clash between the Lobos and Utes that ensued.
Well, in truth, the game did not quite turn “epic” until the second half. In fact, more specifically, the final two minutes.
Prior to the final moments of the game, Utah was in control seemingly from the jump. Through the first media timeout of the game, the Utes, who scored the first points of the game after winning the tip, had raced out to an eight-point lead, 14-6. The Utes lead in the first half would get as large as 10 points, 18-8, at the 11:27 mark.
The Lobos then went on a 9-2 run over the next 3:32 of game time to trim the Utah lead down to three points, 20-17, with 7:55 left in the first half. The capper on that run was a three-pointer by senior guard Royce Olney. It was the first of what ended up being six made three-pointers in the game for Olney (more on the final two later!).
That would be as close as the Lobos would get in the first half however, as the Utes went to the locker room with an 11-point lead, 35-24, thanks to a 6-0 run over the final 1:15 to close out the half. In that first half, the Lobos had no players in double figures and were led in scoring by Clayton Shields with eight points. On the other end of the court, the Utes had two players in double figures with future 17-year NBA veteran Andre Miller leading the way with 12 points.
Early in the second half, Utah swelled their lead to its largest of the game, 13 points (42-29), with 17:27 left on the clock. On the Lobos ensuing trip down the court, Olney buried a three-pointer to cut it down to a 10-point game. The Utes at that time managed to keep the Lobos at bay and saw their highest remaining lead of 11 points, 48-37, come with 14:08 to go.
Coming out of a media timeout, Olney, who had hit both of his second-half attempts prior, drained a trifecta at the 10:38 mark to pull the Lobos to within five points of the Utes, 52-47. It was the closest that the Lobos had been since Olney’s three-pointer in the first half that made it a three-point game.
The sellout and likely standing room only crowd of 18,018 inside The Pit that afternoon was not able to get to full throat following Olney’s three-pointer, however, as the Utes answered right back with one of their own on the next trip down the court.
Just about a minute after the Utes’ answer, Utah had taken a nine-point lead, 58-49, with 9:16 left to play. Over the next two minutes or so of game time, the Lobos ripped off a 7-0 run to close to within a single bucket, 58-56. Once again, the Utes were able to stave off the Lobos at that point and eventually built another nine-point lead, this time with 4:13 remaining.
About a minute and a half later, the Lobos started a comeback effort that would not be denied. With 2:27 remaining on the clock, forward Clayton Shields hit a three-pointer at the top of the key off an assist from Olney. With The Pit crowd getting back into the game, Utah appeared to take away their vaunted collective voices as Alex Jensen got a shot to fall with just one second left on the shot clock.
The Lobos on the court, however, were undeterred, and on the next trip down the court as Shields made a baseline basket to once more cut the lead down to six points.
Following that make by Shields, the Lobos called a timeout with 1:35 showing on the clock. During that timeout, the Lobos made a game-changing decision with their defense and employed a full-court press. Immediately out of the timeout, that change provided dividends as Shields stole the in-bounds pass and dunked to suddenly make it a four-point game, 71-67, with 1:32 left.
On the ensuing trip down the court, the Utes’ Miller drew a foul and subsequently made both to push it back to a six-point game, 73-67, with 1:27 left. Olney and the Lobos matched those free throws with a pair of their own in the next possession, once more making it a four-point game.
Now with just over a minute left in regulation, the Lobo’s full-court press forced another Utah turnover. This time it was Olney with the theft of Miller. With options inside for a quick and easy two pointer, Olney elected to take a few steps back and buried a clutch three-pointer from the corner. That was Olney’s fifth three-pointer of the game and his fourth in the second half alone. It also brought the Lobos to within a single point, 73-72.
On that play, Miller went down with an apparent head injury after Olney stole the ball. That prompted Utes legendary head coach Rick Majerus to come out on the court to check on Miller and also argue with the officials on what was a no-call on Olney. Majerus’ presence on the court and the length of the on-court timeout riled up The Pit crowd even more.
After trailing the Utes for the entirety of the game, the Lobos finally grabbed their first lead at the 22-second mark thanks to a pair of made free throws by future 11-year NBA veteran Kenny Thomas. After Thomas’s free throws put the Lobos ahead, the Utes were off and running and it was Jensen who was off on a break to the hoop for what looked like might be an uncontested layup.
That layup attempt, however, was definitely contested, and done so by Olney who tracked down Jensen to commit the foul with just 14 seconds left.
In that moment, with the game hanging in the balance, The Pit came to life and roared louder perhaps than ever before as Jensen, a career 70-plus percent free throw shooter, toed the charity stripe. With the deafening decibel level growing by the second, Jensen bricked the first shot, keeping the slim one-point Lobo lead intact. As the crowd remained at a fever pitch, Jensen knocked down the second attempt and tied the game at 74-all.
Now the Lobos had the ball and could hold for the final shot. On the in-bounds the Lobos got the ball into the sharp-shooting hands of Olney who then calmly dribbled the ball up the court. Eyeing the clock as he carried the ball over the timeline, Olney began to size up his defender, who continued to sag on Olney.
With the clock winding down and Olney seemingly fixated on being the one to take the final shot, the senior pulled up from beyond 20-feet and hoisted perhaps the biggest shot of his career. As the ball left Olney’s hands, the sellout crowd in The Pit held their collective breaths, but as his shot hit nothing but net, The Pit erupted in sheer elation.
The only problem with Olney’s shot, however, was that it may have come with too much time on the clock as the stats clocked his shot falling with 4.7 seconds remaining. That appeared to be more than enough time for the Utes to inbound the ball and get a quality look for the potential game-tying basket. However, while all of that did indeed transpire for the Utes, the game-tying shot that went in was waved off as it did not leave the shooter’s hand in time.
With the horn sounding and the shot waved off, the Lobos and the fans in The Pit celebrated one of the best comebacks and overall victories in the program’s history. The Lobos would go on to finish that season 24-8 overall and 11-3 in the WAC’s Mountain Division. The Lobos also advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. While a crushing defeat at the time, the Utes went on to only lose four games that season and ultimately finished as the National Runner-Up to champion University of Kentucky.
About Lobo Classics
The goal of the “Lobo Classics” series is to highlight some of the greatest moments in the history of UNM Athletics. These types of moments can consist of specific games, individual performances, record-breaking achievements or even entire championship seasons. It is our intention that during this period of uncertainty, we can bring some joy and happiness to our unwaveringly loyal fans that make up Lobo Nation!
As part of this endeavor, Lobo Athletics wants to make this an interactive project and are opening up for suggestions from Lobo fans everywhere. Fans can make suggestions that they would like to see highlighted in “Lobo Classics” by tweeting to @UNMLobos and using the hashtag #LoboClassics. Fans can also submit suggestions through email: firstname.lastname@example.org.