PORTLAND, Ore. — The season continues.
As does the sweetest of dreams.
On Thursday, the New Mexico men’s basketball team took one of the most hard-fought victories in its NCAA Tournament history to place itself on the doorstep of that elusive Sweet 16 berth.
The 21st-ranked Lobos lost all of a second-half eight-point lead, but regrouped for a rugged 75-68 win against Long Beach State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in the Rose Garden.
The Lobos (28-6) meet 17th-ranked Louisville (27-9) on Saturday, with the winner landing a spot in the Sweet 16 — a destination UNM has never attained.
Louisville, the West Regional’s fourth seed, beat Davidson 69-62 on Saturday.
“To move into the round of 32, you obviously feel pleased,” said UNM coach Steve Alford. “We’re excited that we’re here through the weekend and hopefully can continue to play well.”
The fifth-seeded Lobos won despite being outrebounded (36-31) by the physical, 12th-seeded 49ers. LBSU (25-9) pounded the ball inside most of the day in a game that was horrifically sloppy at times, but downright exhilarating at others.
New Mexico had control midway through the second half when freshman Hugh Greenwood and senior Phillip McDonald hit back-to-back 3s in an 8-0 run to give the Lobos a 51-43 lead. But the 49ers, who hadn’t led the entire second half, clawed back and finally went in front 61-59 with five minutes left on a steal and breakaway slam but James Ennis.
“I thought we had a good chance to win the game after that,” said Ennis, who had 13 points and seven rebounds. “But they just beat us at the end.”
After losing the lead, Alford called timeout. UNM sophomore guard Kendall Williams responded with a 3-point bomb from the left wing to squelch the LBSU comeback and put the Lobos back on top 62-61.
Williams added a pair of free throws a minute later, then hit a huge floater in the lane with 1:25 remaining to make it 70-66.
“Not much of a play (was) really drawn up,” Williams said of his key 3. “Just be aggressive. I missed one before that, kind of sort of short-changed it, so I sort of came back and clutched up for my team and spread it out a little bit. Luckily that one went in.”
New Mexico looked to have it salted away when sophomore Demetrius Walker drove for an open layup with less than 50 seconds remaining. But Walker missed, and the 49ers had the possession trailing by four.
LBSU coach Dan Monson called time and ran a play under the 49ers’ offensive basket for star guard Casper Ware. Ware got a great look at a 3-pointer from the left corner with 45 seconds left. But he missed, and New Mexico put it away from the foul line.
Monson said the play for Ware came out of Alford’s playbook.
“Steve and I will be close forever,” said Monson, who coached against Alford when the former was at Minnesota and the latter at Iowa in the Big Ten.
“He gave me a look like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘We call it Iowa,’ because I stole it from him.”
Despite the intensity of the moment, Alford said the two good friends exchanged a laugh after the play.
“We’ve done that before in the Big Ten,” Alford said. “I remember a game, Minnesota at Iowa, and he started the second half with a play … (then) we came down the floor, run the exact same play for a layup. … At least he acknowledged that he got it from us.”
There was plenty of chuckling from the crowd of 17,050 — about 300 being Lobo fans — early in the game. The teams displayed plenty of tournament nerves, combining for nine turnovers before a point was scored.
Long Beach State finally got the game’s first points on a layup by Eugene Phelps and led most of the first 12 minutes.
The teams then settled into a tense, physical battle that featured seven lead changes and five ties in the opening half. UNM led 33-29 at the break.
The game continued to intensify in the second half, with the 49ers pounding it inside time and time again, and the Lobos countering with their own scores.
Senior post Drew Gordon, who had 18 points and 13 rebounds, scored two baskets to keep UNM in front, but Long Beach State kept attacking and had 10 offensive rebounds in the first 10 minutes of the half.
Monson said the team tried to take it inside in the first half as well, but “we traveled every time we did it.
“… We had so many unforced turnovers early, just excited turnovers, trying to do too much.”
Williams had 12 of his 16 points in the second half and finished 6-of-11 from the floor with a team-high five assists and two steals. Walker had nine of his 11 points in the first half and kept the Lobos ahead with a number of explosive plays. Greenwood finished with 12 points and four assists.
Ware, the two-time Big West player of the year, led Long Beach State with 17 points, but was just 5-of-19 from the floor with Williams defending him most of the game.
“He’s a great scorer, great player,” Williams said. “But we have some athletic guys and we were able to drag out the screens a little bit … A little bit of it was luck, him missing some shots down the stretch.”
T.J. Robinson had 12 points and 14 rebounds for the 49ers.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal