PORTLAND -- The NCAA tournament is a showcase for college basketball stars to shine. But it's also often about them faltering at the worst moments. And lesser-known members of a team's constellation suddenly twinkling in the sport's firmament.
In the entertaining bit of theater that was New Mexico's impressive 75-68 win over a game and perhaps underseeded Long Beach State squad, the Lobos prevailed for a variety of reasons. But chief among them was their star, center Drew Gordon, playing smart and within himself and his No. 2, guard Kendall Williams, showing himself not unwilling to step to the fore.
Meanwhile, the 49ers will be wondering "what if" after point guard Casper Ware, the Big West Player of the Year, conference tournament MVP and Wooden Award nominee, flopped on a big stage. Ware scored 17 points to lead his team, but he also hit only 5 of 19 shots from the field, including 2 of 9 from 3-point range.
"We're here because of Casper Ware," Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said. "So when we leave here, it's going to be because of him. He's carried us."
Gordon posted his 16th double-double of the season, scoring a team-high 18 points and grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds. But it was Williams, the Lobos' second-leading scorer, who made the biggest plays in the second half, when he scored 14 of his 16 points. He also was the Lobo who seemed to most trouble Ware, always seeming to make himself an inconvenience between Ware and the basket.
"[Williams has] got something that you just can't teach -- he's got that extra gear," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "He's the fastest player I've ever coached. He's very, very elusive. He can go right and left. He can go north and south. He's just got speeds to him that he's hard to catch up to."
The game turned just as the 49ers looked to be surging. New Mexico had built an 8-point lead in the second half, but a dunk from James Ennis -- wham! -- had the 49ers suddenly leading 61-59 with five minutes remaining. Their fans started to smell their first tournament win since 1973.
But, after a timeout, Williams drilled a 3-pointer that gave New Mexico a lead it would never relinquish. He hit two of his three treys in the second half, but this one was by far his biggest of the season. Or was it?
"I could probably better answer that after Saturday, because hopefully I can hit some big ones on Saturday," Williams said. "It was nice. It was nice. Good shot."
That slightly coy response refers to New Mexico's date Saturday with Louisville.
After Williams hit his shot, Ware missed the front end of a one-and-one, Gordon made a layup, Ware fouled Williams, and Williams hit a pair of free throws. So in under 1:30, a 2-point Lobos deficit became a 5-point Lobos lead. The 49ers cut the lead to two and three over the final minutes, but Ware couldn't make any plays, and the Lobos hit five of their last six free throws.
While Williams played Robin to Gordon's Batman, it wasn't as if the 49ers didn't provide support to Ware. The rest of them shot 50 percent from the floor, matching the Lobos' strong team shooting night (25-of-50). Ennis had 13 points and seven rebounds, while T.J. Robinson added 12 points and 13 boards.
But Long Beach State goes as Ware goes, and he never was able to get good looks against a Lobos defense designed to thwart him.
"We had a pretty good game plan for Cas," Williams said. "He's a great scorer, great player. But we have some athletic guys and we were able to drag out the screens a little bit. Early in the game he was able to turn the hip on some of our big men, and we made that adjustment and tried to have him be forced back into the guard and kind of contained him a little better."
By obscuring the 49ers' biggest star, Williams now burns a bit brighter. Now, what's he got planned for Saturday?