HUTCHINSON, Kan. - Arkansas basketball recruiting target Desmond Lee (6-4, 195) showed the reasons why he led his New Mexico College team onto the national stage, but he and the other Thunderbirds left here Tuesday with the a broken heart.
Louisville signee Chris Jones had 27 point and Oregon commit Elgin Cook – the son of former Razorback great Alvin Robinson - added 23 as Northwest Florida State rallied from 20 down to oust New Mexico 88-87 in overtime in the second round of the NJCAA Tournament at the Sports Arena.
After Jones missed a shot with 10 seconds left, Lee – who had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists and got the Thunderbirds within one with the last two buckets of the game – had the ball and a chance to win the game, but did not get a foul call as he was going up for a shot at the buzzer.
"This is just a crushing defeat and it is hard to swallow right now," New Mexico coach James Miller said. "I thought we were the better team for 35 of 36 minutes and then the bottom just fell out. The press has not been problematic for these guys all year, but it was at the end tonight. This is a special group of guys and I am so very proud of them."
Lee was so disconsolate after the game and could not bring himself to talk publicly in the press conference, but did say a few words privately.
He had 19 of his points while leading his team to a 67-49 lead with just less than six minutes left in regulation.
It was still a 12-point lead with two minutes left and seven with one minute left as defending national runner-up Northwest Florida just kept coming.
"For 35 minutes they just wore us out," noted Raiders head coach Steve Forbes, a former Tennessee assistant. "We didn't have a lot of answers for them. They were the best team that we have played all year long. They have great guards, made threes, can handle the ball, had a great plan.
"It's too bad somebody has to lose one of those games like that," Forbes said. "...But this is the fourth time that we have been down 18 in the second half and came back and won this season. I can of use the analogy that it is kind of like that movie Seabiscuit. He wants to get behind, gets a whip on him for competition and then he takes off. That is kind of like these guys have been all year long."
Miller credited Northwest Florida for its effort in winning the game, but knows that his team helped out.
"If we would have taken care of the basketball and taken the correct shots, we would have won the ballgame," Miller said. "I really believe that. It was uncharacteristic turnovers. We don't turn the ball over. We haven't all year through 33 games going into this game. For whatever reason, the last two minutes and 30 seconds, we were up 12 and the bottom just fell out of it."
Lee has a plethora of offers with Arkansas, North Carolina State and Illinois expected to be the three places he takes official visits now that the season is over.
"I really like Arkansas," Lee said before politely asking if he could talk about recruiting later in the week.
Miller obviously has a lot of admiration for Lee, who averaged a team-leading 20.2 points this season.
"He's come so far the last two years," Miller said. "I get choked up because these guys are my kids. Des is a special, special kid and a special, special player. He's an All-American. I don't think I can find another guy like this. It is going to be hard...Des is an All-American and I expect him to compete at a high level. He's a good kid off the floor, gets good grades, no trouble. He is special."
New Mexico ends the season 25-11 while Northwest Florida State (28-3) moves on to play Iowa Western in a Thursday quarterfinal round game of the 24-team, single-elimination event.
"It was an amazing season – an amazing season," Miller said through tears. "I love these guys to death. I really do. Disappointment in the word right now. Tomorrow, next week, I can be reflective and know how special a group this was. Just a special, special group."
"It was huge," Miller said. "This school had not been here in 17 years. Now people know that New Mexico Junior College is someone to compete with. Winning the game would have helped with that, but obviously anybody that knows basketball and knows the game knows that we can compete with anybody in the country. I really believe that.
"...It's been awesome," Miller said. "It's been an awesome three or four days. I have never been here and none of these guys had either. It's an amazing experience and it is something that you will take away after the sting goes away."
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