That was...wild. The Lobos looked cooked trailing by six points with 0:12 on the clock, but a three-point play by Alex Kirk put them within in striking distance. Then Kendall Williams demonstrated what can only be called pure clutch brilliance by scoring six points in the final six seconds of the game, including an insane running 30-foot three-pointer at the 0:01 mark to force overtime.
The Blazers appeared resolute in overtime, gaining a 84-78 lead with 56.8 second left to play. "Surely this time," the Blazer must have thought. But no. The Lobos found a way to claw back within three points, and then the seven-foot Kirk drained a three from the top of the key to force yet another overtime.
The Blazers appeared to be losing steam in the early minutes of double overtime, allowing the Lobos to jump out to a 91-86 lead. But the Blazers caught a second wind, tying the game at 92 with just over a minute to play. On the next play, Williams found a seam, drove the ball hard to the paint and kicked the ball out to Cleveland Thomas who nailed a lethal three-pointer. The Lobos clung to their lead to outlast the Blazers.
This was a game of exponential endurance and resilience on both sides (and maybe a little bit of luck for the Lobos). I mentioned yesterday that the Lobos might want to conjure some of the magic that allowed them to win the Paradise Jam Tournament. They did just that, and with the same magician running the show-Kendall Williams (who finished with 29 points, 10 assists and six rebounds).
"You can never underestimate the heart of a champion," said Lobo Coach Craig Neal. "They never one time in the huddle, never one time during a timeout, wavered from believing they could get it done." "If there is a better guard in the country, I'd like to see him as far as doing everything," said Neal of his senior leader. "He doesn't get the credit that he deserves. He could have had 40 points if he was selfish."
To be sure though, Williams had some help. Cameron Bairstow had a huge impact before fouling out in regulation with 21 points, eight rebounds and four assist. Kirk added 16 points, 11 boards and five blocks. Thomas chipped in 10 points and seven rebounds. And one cannot forget the 7-1 freshman, Obij Aget, who stepped in late into double overtime. "I put him in hoping we'd get a rebound or a block," Neal said. He got both, plus a point from a free throw shot that nurtured the Lobo's slender lead.
Elation aside, the Blazers exposed some serious New Mexico flaws. Chad Frazier (34 points) and Robert Williams (15 points) sliced up the Lobo defense with impunity. Rod Rucker pushed New Mexico around, pouring in 18 points and pulling down 20 boards. The Lobos did a good job containing UAB top-scorer, C.J. Washington who had eight points and nine rebounds.
The Blazers are not to be underestimated. They have an arsenal of scorers. New Mexico took out Washington, but that only opened the door for the other incredibly talented players to put up points. Honestly, UAB probably should have won this game. Or rather, it was theirs to lose even though most experts thought that it would be New Mexico's to lose.
Either way, New Mexico moves on to face the undefeated UMass Minutemen, who defeated Nebraska 96-90. The Minutemen are led by Chaz Williams who is averaging 21 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. Bruce Pearl, Shaka Smart, and Dick Vitale all think that he is a hugely underrated player whose name we will all know be season's end.
Other names the Lobos may want to become familiar with are Derrick Gordon and Sampson Carter; Gordon scored 20 and Carter scored 16 points against Nebraska. UMass had six total players in double digits to out-run Nebraska. Speaking of "run," the Minutemen like to push the ball. UMass started the game on an 11-3 run and opened the second half with an 18-10 surge to lead 60-49. UMass shot 50 percent from the field, but went 3-of-11 from long range.
UNM head coach, Craig Neal, has said that he seeks to speed up the Lobo's offense. This will be his chance to prove it. It seemed that the Lobo's offense slowed drastically in the second half against UAB when their shots failed to fall. Let's see if the Lobos can keep the tempo up for a full game.
Much like UAB, Chaz Williams and the Minutemen are going to test New Mexico's ability to guard off the dribble. If Williams penetrates as easily as Chad Frazier, the Lobos are in trouble. Look for the Lobos to prevent penetration and find quick, quality shots on offense. Hopefully the Lobos can recover from an exhausting 50-minute game because they face UMass Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET (12:30 p.m. MT) on ESPN2.