PORTLAND, Ore. (AP)The expectation back in New Mexico is that this will finally be the year the Lobos get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
They barely got out of the second round Thursday.
Kendall Williams scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half and bottled up Long Beach State star Casper Ware defensively as fifth-seeded New Mexico held off the 49ers for a 75-68 win in the West Regional.
Drew Gordon added 18 points and 13 rebounds, but New Mexico’s punishing forward was mostly a complement to Williams in the second half. The sophomore went 6 of 11 from the field, hitting a pair of important 3-pointers. The Lobos (28-6) then made their free throws in the final minute to close it out.
On the defensive end, Williams’ length and quickness bothered Ware all afternoon. The Big West player of the year went nearly 25 minutes without a field goal and finished with 17 points on 5-of-19 shooting.
T.J. Robinson added 12 points and 14 rebounds for the 12th-seeded 49ers (25-9), who lost their NCAA tournament opener for the fifth straight time.
The Lobos will face No. 4 seed Louisville in the third round Saturday after the Cardinals beat Davidson 69-62. New Mexico has been knocked out in its second game of the tournament in five of its previous six NCAA appearances, including two years ago when the Lobos were a No. 3 seed and fell to 11th-seeded Washington by 18.
Gordon, the transfer from UCLA who found success in the Southwest, shot 7 of 10 and Hugh Greenwood added 12 points for the Lobos. New Mexico won its sixth straight after sweeping to the Mountain West Conference tournament title last weekend in Las Vegas.
Known for their defense, the Lobos seemed poised to pull away after Gordon scored off a rebound for a 51-43 lead with 12 minutes remaining. That capped an eight-point run after James Ennis’ three-point play pulled the 49ers even at 43-all.
But the 49ers wouldn’t fade. A pair of free throws from Edis Dervisevic was followed by Larry Anderson tipping in Ware’s miss and Ware scoring his first field goal since the 14:58 mark of the first half on a bulldozing drive into the lane to cut the lead to 51-49 with 9:55 left.
Williams answered with a 3 for the Lobos, only to see consecutive jumpers fall for Mike Caffey and Ware to get the 49ers back within one. Ware then had an open look at an NBA range 3-pointer that went part of the way down only to rim out.
Long Beach State finally tied it at 57 when Eugene Phelps tipped in Ware’s miss, and the 49ers went ahead 61-59 with 5 minutes left after Ennis stole an errant pass from Greenwood and windmill-slammed the 49ers into the lead for the first time since it was 27-25.
Lobos coach Steve Alford immediately called a timeout and got the desired response with Williams knocking down an open 3. Ware then missed the front end of a one-and-one and Gordon scored for a 64-61 New Mexico advantage. Williams and Greenwood later added free throws for a 68-63 lead, but Caffey’s 3-pointer made it a one-possession game.
Amid the chaos of Long Beach State trying to trap defensively, Williams calmly dribbled in the lane and hit a floater with 1:25 left to push the lead back to 70-66. Ware missed an open 3 with 45 seconds left and Demetrius Walker, Greenwood and Gordon put the victory away at the free throw line.
Ware carried the 49ers to the Big West title, finally vanquishing UC Santa Barbara in the championship game after losing to the Gauchos in the previous two conference title games. He scored 33 in the final and because of the 49ers’ challenging nonconference schedule, they were seen as a popular choice to pull the annual 12-5 tournament upset.
But after his 3-pointer with 15 minutes left in the first half, Ware didn’t hit another field goal until 10 minutes remained.