Thomas lifts No. 19 New Mexico to 97-94, 2OT win

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - New Mexico coach Craig Neal knew his team had guys capable of making big shots. At the Charleston Classic on Thursday, Neal watched three of his players hit 3-pointers to save the 19th-ranked Lobos.

Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk had late 3-pointers that forced a first and second time overtime and Cleveland Thomas hit a 3 to put New Mexico (3-0) up for good in a 97-94, double overtime thriller Thursday.

"It's amazing," Neal said. "I always thought if we'd get a shot at it we might have a guy hit a shot."

Williams, who finished with 29 points, was first with the Lobos down 75-72 in regulation. He ran around the right side and leapt high in the air as he released the ball, which swished through as time ran out.

There was no doubt, said Williams, that he would take the shot. He was less sure about it's accuracy as he drifted right. "There must have been an angel up there," he said.

New Mexico faced another deficit in the first overtime, down 86-81 to UAB (3-1). Then it was Kirk's turn in the spotlight. He drew his team closer with a basket, then was left open on the top left side of the circle. Despite missing his first four 3-pointers, Kirk's shot was true with 2.2 seconds left to force the second overtime.

"I can shoot it," Kirk said. "I haven't showed it very much, but I can shoot it."

Kirk's three-point play with 2:28 left in the second overtime looked as if it would finally be the back-breaker, putting New Mexico up 91-86. This time, it was UAB fighting back to tie as Chad Frazier had a three-point play and Tosin Mahinti an inside shot. But Thomas was left alone on his three-pointer with 39.5 seconds left and New Mexico held on.

UAB coach Jerod Haase said he had wanted his players to foul on the final play of regulation, but could not get it done. He felt there was too much time after Kirk's bucket to give New Mexico opportunities at points with the clock stopped.

"That was the plan," he said. "But it wasn't executed properly."

When it was over, Williams put his hands on his head in amazement. "This is a group that's had a lot of success playing together and staying in games," he said.

New Mexico moves on to play Massachusetts, a 96-90 winner over Nebraska earlier Thursday. UAB falls into the consolation bracket and will take on the Cornhuskers on Friday.

Cameron Bairstow had 21 points and eight rebounds for New Mexico before fouling out in regulation. Kirk had 16 points and 11 rebounds, until he, too, fouled out with two minutes left in the second overtime.

Frazier finished with a career-high 34 points while Rod Rucker had 18 points and a career-best 20 rebounds. Rucker went 12 of 13 from the foul line.

UAB looked as if it had the game wrapped up in both regulation and the first overtime.

New Mexico had played just twice coming into the eight-team event with a couple of blowout victories over Alabama A&M and Charleston Southern to start the year. Then again, when you've got four starters back from last year's Mountain West champions who went 29-6 a year, it's easy to count on lopsided wins.

And the Lobos are led by their big men in Bairstow and Kirk. The two had identical 9-of-13 shooting performances in the 109-93 victory over Charleston Southern last Sunday night.

New Mexico is shooting 65.8 percent on two-point goals _ second best in the country behind Utah _ as its guards have successfully fed the 7-foot Kirk and 6-9 Bairstow this season.

That's a good game plan for Neal to follow, one that worked well during Steve Alford's six seasons with the Lobos before he left to take over UCLA this season.

Neal helped New Mexico average 24 wins a year as Alford's assistant and he's trying to keep that going as the man in charge.

UAB made that difficult throughout the opening-round game.

The Lobos were ahead 35-26 at the break and were still in front 49-40 when the Blazers rallied to move in front down the stretch.

Neal's college coach at Georgia Tech, Bobby Cremins, was on hand to watch at TD Arena, the building on the College of Charleston campus. Cremins coached Charleston for six seasons before stepping away in 2012.

Neal wanted to get his players home and ready for what he expects will be another fast-paced battle with UMass, which didn't need any extra sessions to post 96 points.

"We'll just need to get some rest," he said. "Our guys know what they have to do."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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