PORTLAND, Ore. — The first priority for Kendall Williams was defense. He spent all afternoon bumping, hounding, hand-checking and harassing Casper Ware wherever the Long Beach State star went.
Yet the points Williams provided for New Mexico in the second half were equally important Thursday. And now, maybe these Lobos will finally fulfill expectations back home and get past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Williams scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half and bottled up Ware defensively as fifth-seeded New Mexico held off the 49ers for a 75-68 win in the West Regional.
When New Mexico needed a big shot, it was the quick, lanky, sophomore guard who delivered. His 3-pointer with 4:38 left pushed the Lobos ahead for good after Long Beach State (25-9) took a 61-59 lead on a steal and windmill dunk from James Ennis.
Williams then floated a soft runner in the lane with 1:25 left for a 70-66 New Mexico lead that the 12th-seeded 49ers couldn’t overcome.
“Our coaches told us to get into the lane and penetrate and make plays,” Williams said. “I saw a few openings, a few opportunities and was able to make some pretty big shots down the stretch.”
Drew Gordon added 18 points and 13 rebounds, but New Mexico’s punishing forward was mostly a complement to Williams in the second half. Williams went 6 of 11 from the field, hitting a pair of important 3-pointers, and the Lobos (28-6) made their free throws in the final minute to close it out.
On the defensive end, Williams’ length and quickness bothered Ware the entire game. 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.
“He carried us. I didn’t give him a blow in the second half. I told him we kind of wore him out,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said.
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 appeared 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 Ennis’ three-point play pulled Long Beach State even at 43-all.
But the 49ers wouldn’t fade. Ware scored 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.
And it was Long Beach State 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.
Williams then hit the first of his two huge shots. Out of a timeout, he found himself open on the wing and knocked down his second 3-pointer to give New Mexico the lead for good.
“I missed one before that, kind of short-changed it, so I sort of came back and clutched up for my team and spread it out a little bit,” Williams said. “And luckily that one went in and we were able to get inside after that and finish the game.
Ware 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 Mike 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.
“He’s always had that ability to make really big plays, if not by pass, by shot, or by the free throw line,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said.
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 upset pick.
But after his 3-pointer with 15 minutes left in the first half, Ware didn’t hit another field goal until 10 minutes remained. T.J. Robinson added 12 points and 14 rebounds for the 49ers and Ennis finished with 13 points.
“I hit them before. They just didn’t go in tonight,” Ware said. “It’s not like I’ve never hit them before. I hit plenty of those shots. Today they wouldn’t give me a roll. When we went up by two, they just made more plays than we did.”