A day after throwing up an airball free throw, Kendall Williams flashed his flair for the dramatic by hitting a far more difficult shot under duress.
With the shot clock about to expire, the senior guard pulled up from 25 feet and put the finishing touch on New Mexico’s third consecutive Mountain West tournament championship.
“I pass a lot,” he said. “Sometimes, you got to take those big-time shots.”
Williams’ 3-pointer with 24 seconds remaining lifted the second-seeded Lobos to a 64-58 victory over top-seeded San Diego State on Saturday at the Thomas &Mack Center. The nets were cut down by a team other than UNLV for the sixth straight year.
Senior forward Cameron Bairstow had 17 points and nine rebounds, and Williams finished with 16 points as New Mexico (27-6) earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Xavier Thames scored 15 points before the senior point guard fouled out for the Aztecs (29-4). Dwayne Polee II had 14 points and Winston Shepard, a Findlay Prep product, scored 13.
Out of a timeout in the final minute, San Diego State switched from a man defense to a 1-3-1 zone. The Lobos appeared confused, and Williams dribbled down the final seconds on the shot clock before rising and firing over the long arms of Polee.
“I have seen Williams make deep 3s against a lot of people,” Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. “It was a long, hard shot. He’s got a lot of moxy.”
Hugh Greenwood’s 3-pointer put New Mexico ahead 52-46 with 4:54 remaining. The Lobos seemed in control with a seven-point lead with 2½ minutes to go. But Shepard’s tip-in, Thames’ 3-pointer and a dunk and a three-point play by Polee sent San Diego State in front 57-56 at the 1:21 mark.
Bairstow answered that flurry in a hurry, scoring on a fast-break layup and converting a three-point play six seconds later.
After Polee missed on a drive to the rim with 58 seconds left, Bairstow rebounded. That sequence — during which Polee might have been fouled but nothing was called — set up Williams’ clinching 3 that made the score 62-57.
The officiating was bizarre at times, especially in the second half, when 30 of the game’s 41 fouls were called. The teams combined for 49 free-throw attempts, 36 after halftime. Thames picked up his fourth foul with 11:03 remaining, and the Aztecs suffered in his absence.
“Did I complain about some calls? Yes,” Fisher said. “Those are three really good officials. None of the three were attempting to make calls to favor one team over the other. I thought there were some calls that weren’t good. But if you get caught up in yapping at the officials, whether you’re a player or coach, you’re not going to be focused on the job.
“We competed from wire to wire, and we just didn’t quite have enough to finish. We’re disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity to cut the nets down. But if we continue to play that way, we’ll have a chance to be playing after the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.”
A year after putting five teams in the NCAA’s 68-team field, the Mountain West will send only San Diego State, ranked No. 8 in the Associated Press poll, and New Mexico, ranked 20th.
The Aztecs, expected to draw a No. 3 or 4 seed when the field is announced today, won their tournament opener last year before getting upset by Florida Gulf Coast. The Lobos were a No. 3 seed a year ago, when they were stunned by Harvard in their opener.
“I have no idea where we’ll be seeded,” Fisher said.
Williams wished San Diego State “a lot of success in the tournament” and said New Mexico is getting “ready for what we’ve deemed unfinished business.”
“We’re very serious about the NCAA Tournament and very excited about it,” Williams said.
The Lobos’ first-year coach, Craig Neal, was an assistant to Steve Alford last year. On Saturday, Alford coached UCLA to the Pac-12 title a few blocks away at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Thames, voted the Player of the Year for leading the Aztecs’ to the regular-season title, was named to the all-tournament team with Polee and the Lobos’ Bairstow, Williams and Alex Kirk.
Bairstow was voted the tournament Most Valuable Player, a week after being upstaged by Thames in New Mexico’s dramatic loss at San Diego State.
“It wasn’t about proving a point. You just got to understand it’s all about team success,” Bairstow said. “Each of my years here, the award has gone to the best player on the best team. In the regular season, San Diego State was the best team. In this tournament, we were the best team.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.