FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Kendall Williams wasn’t having the Moby Arena farewell tour he envisioned.
A season after scoring 46 points in what amounted to a Mountain West championship- and league MVP-clinching performance at Colorado State, the University of New Mexico senior guard was kicking things in the locker room at halftime Saturday. His four-point, three turnover first half contributed to the Lobos trailing the Rams 27-24 at the break.
Then, Williams said he started feeling at home once again in the gym that’s been so kind to him as a Lobo.
Williams scored 19 second-half points on five 3-pointers to lead the Lobos, playing without 7-foot center Alex Kirk because of injury, to a nail-biting 68-66 win over Colorado State in front of an announced 5,592 fans.
“I think I put a little too much pressure on myself after what happened last year,” Williams said of his early struggles. “Second half, I just got into a rhythm and played my game. Luckily I hit some shots and closed out the game the right way.”
It didn’t hurt that his head coach, Craig Neal, spread the floor in the second half with a four-guard lineup because of Kirk’s absence with an undisclosed left leg injury that had the big man in street clothes and a walking boot on the team bench.
READ MORE: Kirk’s injury ‘undisclosed, day-to-day’
The open court, and CSU’s inability to guard Williams, seemed to play into the senior’s hot hand as he scored 13 points in the final 8:31.
“I thought Kendall just took it over in the second half,” said Neal.
The Lobos (15-4, 6-1) now have four Mountain West Conference road wins.
Saturday’s victory had its share of last-minute drama and officiating controversy.
Colorado State (12-8, 3-4) led 64-63 before Hugh Greenwood hit an open 3-pointer for a 66-64 Lobos lead.
On the ensuing CSU possession, Rams forward Gerson Santo missed a layup, which Greenwood rebounded with 40 seconds showing on the clock. Unbeknownst to CSU head coach Larry Eustachy, the game-clock operator did not reset the shot clock to 35 seconds as he was supposed to do on the Greenwood rebound.
Eustachy thought a defensive stop would give his team time to tie the game, so he instructed his team not to foul.
“The shot clock should restart at 35,” Eustachy said. “So we’re sitting there, they’re dribbling at half court and I thought there was more (time), there was five, six seconds. … We weren’t going to foul, and five seconds is plenty of time to drive it up the court if you have one hard stop and win the game. All of a sudden I look up and something is wrong with this movie.”
When the Rams realized they had to foul, there were only 10.1 seconds remaining. The two teams each hit two free throws over the next four seconds. CSU guard Daniel Bejarano, who scored a team-high 21 points, drove the length of the floor with 6.1 seconds remaining only to miss a floater from the baseline at the buzzer.
Kirk’s absence led to the Rams out-rebounding UNM 23-19 in the opening half, and they offset their 28.1 percent (9-of-32) shooting in the first 20 minutes by grabbing 10 offensive rebounds. CSU shot 32.1 percent in the game to 46.9 percent for UNM, which hit 7-for-11 from 3-point range in the second half.
While Williams and Greenwood were hot down the stretch from the outside, Cam Bairstow had 19 points for UNM on the inside.
“We’ve got to find ways to win, and that’s what championship teams do,” said Greenwood (eight points, five rebounds, four assists, no turnovers).
And as for Williams’ final visit to Moby Arena?
“Not 46,” Williams said, “but 23 and a win, I’ll take it.”