ST. THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands — The Lobos’ Silent Assassin made his presence heard once again.
Tony Snell, the soft-spoken junior who seems to continually face questions about his confidence and killer instinct, nailed a 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining, giving the University of New Mexico its first lead of the second half to defeat George Mason 70-69 in a semifinal game of the Paradise Jam.
“He (freshman guard Cleveland Thomas) just passed it to me and I just hoped it went in,” said Snell, who scored a career-high 27 points. “And it went in.”
Lobos junior Kendall Williams, much more the talker than Snell, had a more expressive take on Snell’s heroics.
“I thought it was a tough shot, then I thought about who was shooting it and I figured game over,” said Williams, who set up Snell’s game winner with a 3-pointer of his own and then a steal in the closing seconds.
Trailing 69-64 with 11.9 seconds remaining, Williams, who finished with 14 points, pulled up a good 10 feet beyond the 3-point line and drained a desperation 3-pointer to pull UNM within 69-67.
“I figured this is one of our last chances,” said Williams, second on the Lobos with 14 points. “If this doesn’t go in, we’ll probably be done so I put everything into it to make sure I didn’t miss short.”
After it went in, George Mason (2-2) coach Paul Hewitt says he made a tactical mistake in letting point guard Byron Allen, who stands just 6-feet-3-inches tall, try to inbound the ball over the long arms of the 6-7 Snell.
“I did a poor job on that baseline (play) out of bounds,” Hewitt said. “I put Byron in a position I probably shouldn’t have put him in.”
Snell’s length disrupted the inbounds pass which was easily stolen by Williams about 25 feet from the basket. Williams calmly swung the ball around the perimeter until it found Thomas in the right corner. Instead of shooting what would have been a contested 3-pointer, he drove to the rim, drawing three Patriot defenders to him and leaving Snell wide open on the left wing for the game winner.
“Tony did what all good players have to do,” UNM coach Steve Alford said. “You have to execute the play and make the shot.”
A desperation full-court shot by George Mason was all that was left before UNM could claim its third win less than a week into the season.
UNM plays 23rd-ranked Connecticut in today’s 8 p.m. championship game. UConn beat Quinnipiac 89-83 in double overtime in Sunday’s other semifinal.
Sunday’s win came with the knowledge by the Lobos that they have yet to play what they would consider a complete game.
In the season opener last Tuesday against Davidson, UNM fell behind by as many as 16 points in the second half before rallying for a win. Against Illinois-Chicago on Friday in the Paradise Jam, UNM had a 14-point halftime lead cut down to 2 points in the final moments before holding off the Flames. On Sunday, the Lobos gave George Mason every opportunity to win.
“I don’t think we’re playing particularly good basketball,” Alford said. “We turned it over 18 times again and we gave up 15 offensive rebounds. Offensively we’re a little out of sync. But the one thing our guys have done here early in the season … we’re fighting. That’s the thing. When you compete and you fight for 40 minutes, good things happen.”
For all the early season talk of UNM’s concerns about interior defense in the absence of Drew Gordon this season, the Lobos gave up 11 3-pointers to George Mason, a team that went without a trey in Friday’s win over Mercer. In three games this season, UNM’s perimeter defense has surrendered 32 3-pointers.
“We don’t want to give up the three ball to the level we’ve given it up,” Alford said. “That’s something we’ve got to look at.”
The return today of senior backup point guard Jamal Fenton from a three-game NCAA suspension for receiving impermissible benefits, should help UNM’s ball handling.
“It’s been very hard sitting out, not being a part of the team right now,” Fenton said before Sunday’s game. “But I made a mistake and I got to learn from it. Coaches talked to me about being a leader … now I just have to make that transition back on the court to playing again.”
His return should help sophomore point guard Hugh Greenwood in particular. Greenwood had an uncharacteristically-high four turnovers Sunday, and was 1-of-5 shooting. Williams had five turnovers and junior Demetrius Walker had four.
“Our kids the last 18 minutes of the second half executed as well as they could have executed. Made shots,” Hewitt said. “Give New Mexico credit, they made some big shots. … Tony Snell hit a big time shot to win the game.”