PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Casper Ware was largely responsible for getting Long Beach State back to the NCAA tournament and the biggest reason the 49ers were such a popular upset pick.
Ware finally wore out on Thursday, unable to provide one final sparkling moment in his 49ers career.
Hounded all afternoon by lanky New Mexico guard Kendall Williams, Ware struggled to a 5-of-19 shooting performance and the 12th-seeded 49ers saw their season end with a 75-68 loss to the fifth-seeded Lobos in the West Regional.
Ware finished with 17 points, nowhere near a season low. But nothing came easily for the Big West Player of the Year after a season in which he made almost everything look simple.
“We’re here because of Casper Ware, and so when we leave it’s going to be because of him. He carried us. I didn’t give him a blow the second half. I told him we kind of wore him out,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said.
Ware went 25 minutes without a field goal, a span that began with a 3-pointer at the 14:58 mark of the first half and ended when he scored with about 10 minutes left in the second.
“I think the early start of that game when we couldn’t settle down — we had opportunities to get a lead and get up six or eight and play from ahead — is totally different,” Monson said. “You can get guys blows. You can play a little bit different. And I think we — Casper is our team and how he played at the end was indicative of us. We just didn’t have enough gas to finish.”
Williams’ production wasn’t only at the defensive end, where he was largely responsible for forcing Ware into tough shots. He also provided an offensive punch in the second half that the Lobos needed.
Williams scored 14 of his 16 points after halftime to go along with 18 points and 13 rebounds from Drew Gordon. But New Mexico’s punishing forward was mostly a complement to Williams in the second half. Williams went 6 of 11 from the field, hitting a pair of important 3-pointers, and the Lobos (28-6) made their free throws in the final minute to close it out.
The Lobos will face No. 4 seed Louisville in the third round Saturday after the Cardinals beat Davidson 69-62. New Mexico has been knocked out in its second game of the tournament in five of its previous six NCAA appearances, including two years ago when the Lobos were a No. 3 seed and fell to 11th-seeded Washington by 18.
“He’s always had that ability to make really big plays, if not by pass, by shot, or by the free throw line,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said of Williams. “Or now what he’s developed into which has been very, very unappreciated all year is the type of defensive player he is. Casper Ware is terrific. The majority of the night it was Kendall Williams. He’s 5 for 19. He had to work for everything he had.”
Ware carried the 49ers (25-9) to the Big West title, finally vanquishing UC Santa Barbara in the championship game after losing to the Gauchos in the previous two conference title games. He scored 33 in the final and because of the 49ers’ challenging nonconference schedule, they were seen as a popular choice to pull the common 12-5 tournament upset.
But after his 3-pointer with 15 minutes left in the first half, Ware didn’t hit another field goal until 10 minutes remained. That came during a 49ers run that led to Long Beach State leading 61-59 with 5 minutes left after James Ennis stole an errant pass from Hugh Greenwood and windmill-slammed the 49ers into the lead for the first time since it was 27-25.
“I thought we had a good chance to win the game after that,” Ennis said. “They just beat us at the end. The free throws caught up with us at the end.”
Alford immediately called a timeout and got the desired response, with Williams knocking down an open 3. Ware then missed the front end of a one-and-one and Gordon scored for a 64-61 New Mexico advantage. Williams and Greenwood later added free throws for a 68-63 lead, but Mike Caffey’s 3-pointer made it a one-possession game.
Amid the chaos of Long Beach State trying to trap defensively, Williams calmly dribbled in the lane and hit a floater with 1:25 left to push the lead back to 70-66. Ware missed an open 3 with 45 seconds left and Demetrius Walker, Greenwood and Gordon put the victory away at the free throw line.
T.J. Robinson had 12 points and 14 rebounds for the 49ers. Ennis finished with 13 points.
“I hit them before. They just didn’t go in tonight,” Ware said. “It’s not like I’ve never hit them before. I hit plenty of those shots. Today they wouldn’t give me a roll. When we went up by two, they just made more plays than we did.”