CHARLESTON, S.C. – The venue was different. The big-shot mindset wasn’t.
As they did last November in the Virgin Islands when they trailed George Mason by five points with 11.9 seconds remaining and rallied to win, the No. 19 New Mexico Lobos again had their backs against the wall against an underdog on Thursday.
This time, UNM scored nine points in the final 11.9 seconds of regulation, including a flailing Kendall Williams 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded to force overtime against Alabama-Birmingham. They followed that with Alex Kirk’s 3-pointer that forced a second overtime when the Lobos finally put away the Blazers, 97-94.
“Alls I can say is wow,” UNM coach Craig Neal said. “I’m really proud of my team. We’ve been through a lot of these, but that might have been the most exciting one we’ve been involved in.”
Williams, who a year ago hit a 35-foot 3-pointer against George Mason then stole a pass to set up the game winning shot by Tony Snell, finished with 29 points against UAB, none more spectacular than his buzzer beater at the end of regulation.
“When I threw it up, it looked so far left, but I was basically falling on my butt going right so I couldn’t really judge it,” Williams said. “There must be an angel somewhere up there. I’m just happy it fell.
“I did know I was going to take it. As a senior, luckily the guys trusted me. I’ve made some crazy shots last year around this time.”
Trailing 71-66, Kirk hit a layup and was fouled by UAB’s Chad Frazier with 11.9 seconds remaining. He made the free throw to make it 71-69.
UAB responded with two free throws from Rod Rucker, who had 18 points and 20 rebounds, pushing the score to 73-69 for UAB with 11.2 seconds remaining.
Williams followed with a traditional three-point play with 5.5 seconds to trim the lead to 73-72. But Rucker hit two more free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining for a 75-72 UAB lead.
UAB coach Jerod Haase said the plan at that point was to foul Williams so he couldn’t shoot a 3-pointer.
“I said try and turn him in and foul him, foul him, foul him,” Haase said of his instructions to guard Robert Williams. “He knew going into it, and he did try to foul him. He bumped him pretty good, I thought. But (Kendall Williams) made a hell of a shot.”
UAB led by as many as six in the first overtime. But sophomore forward Nick Banyard, subbing for the fouled-out Cameron Bairstow, scored all nine of his points in the two overtime periods, including six in the first overtime. That set up Kirk, the 7-foot junior who was 0-for-4 from 3-point range at the time. He sank a long trey with 2.1 seconds remaining, tying the game at 86-86 to force a second overtime.
“The rule is, pretty much, if I don’t shoot that when I’m open, I’m going to get an earful more than I would if I missed it,” Kirk said.
The Lobos never trailed in the second overtime, closing out the Blazers 11-8 in the final period, thanks in large part to a Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas 3-pointer. He had a highlight reel block of a slam dunk attempt earlier in overtime.
“They make fun of me because I’ve got all these clichés,” Neal said. “You just can’t underestimate the heart of a champion, and these guys have been champions. They’ve been through wars like this.”
Frazier led UAB with 34 points, and the Blazers out-rebounded UNM 62-58.
But despite some struggles early, UNM’s frontcourt duo of Bairstow and Kirk still dominated in the end. Kirk had 16 points, 11 rebounds and five blocked shots. Bairstow had 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
Thomas had 10 points, including two 3-pointers.
UNM struggled to shoot, going just 34.1 percent from the field (31-of-91), and freshman guard Cullen Neal was 0-for-8.
But in the end, the stat sheet didn’t matter to the Lobos.
“I think like coach said, heart of a champion,” Kendall Williams said. “We’ve got a group here that’s played together and had a lot of success sticking it out and never giving up. That’s kind of been the theme of this team.”