Top-seed New Mexico struggles but advances

It’s not always so easy to slow Kendall Williams, but even when the junior guard is an offensive no-show, New Mexico keeps rolling anyway.

Instead of putting on a show worthy of the conference Player of the Year, Williams turned into a role player Wednesday. He made one field goal, scored six points and made his most meaningful contributions on defense.

Tony Snell scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half, and Cameron Bairstow totaled 14 points and eight rebounds as the top-seeded Lobos struggled to hold off Wyoming 59-46 in a Mountain West tournament quarterfinal at the Thomas & Mack Center.

“If you can’t defend a team, you won’t win games,” Snell said.

New Mexico (27-5) did not resemble the 15th-ranked team in the nation on the offensive end, opening the second half by going more than 10 minutes without a field goal, but coach Steve Alford still liked what he was seeing.

“I guess it’s in the eyes of the beholder of what’s pretty and ugly,” Alford said. “In March, when you win by 13 points, to me it’s pretty. We’ve had a lot of games this year we haven’t shot the ball well. The key and identity to this basketball team has always been the defensive end.”

Larry Nance Jr. and Derrious Gilmore each scored 14 points for the Cowboys (19-13). But Gilmore got 11 points before Alford assigned Williams to shut down the diminutive point guard.

The Lobos advanced to play San Diego State in the first semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday. Wyoming will wait and hope for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.

The Cowboys cut a 10-point halftime deficit to 36-33 on a Nance free throw with 15 minutes remaining. Three minutes later, Nance and Leonard Washington both were saddled with four fouls, and the Lobos finished off the game at the free-throw line by hitting 21 of 29.

“It’s always tough to be playing this caliber of a team in foul trouble,” Nance said. “But I definitely think we did a fairly good job of staying in the game.”

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@ or 702-387-2907. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.

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