Some day the Huskies will win a close game on the road. It hasn’t happened yet – they’re 0-5 in games decided by five points or less – but it feels as if they’re getting closer to finally putting it all together and doing what it takes to win a big game in the final minutes.
They lost by five points (76-71) against Michigan State in the Maui Invitational.
They lost by one point (63-62) at Texas A&M.
They lost by two points (58-56) at Stanford.
They lost by five points (81-76) at Oregon.
And they lost again today, falling 87-86 at No. 12 Arizona. See a pattern? This list doesn’t include the seven-point defeat against Kentucky when UW was down two points with 47 seconds left.
There’s something missing on this team. Call it what ever you want. Luck? The clutch gene? A go-to guy?
Whatever it is, you would have thought the Huskies would have discovered it by now. This team is too talented and too experienced not to be able to win at least one big game on the road in the final minutes.
And make no mistake, the Huskies played much better tonight then they did in those previous five games.
Lorenzo Romar (left) and the coaching staff lamented a few turnovers early the second half that killed some fast break opportunities. Isaiah Thomas had layup blocked and Justin Holiday threw a bad pass that ruined easy scoring chances.
Still that’s not the reason Washington lost.
The Huskies gave a phenomenal effort. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They weathered an early storm and an energized crowd. When the other team makes 11 of 18 three-pointers, it might not be your day. Still, the Huskies had a chance in the end.
It looked as if Romar willed his team to a tremendous effort. He crouched low like a NFL cornerback while clapping and encouraging the Huskies to play hard. He ran up and down the sidelines. He pleaded for calls. He substituted frequently and used the zone at just the right times.
Romar said afterward he to survive the opening minutes. The Huskies were down 52-40 before staging a comeback. Romar had the guards extend defensively and suddenly Arizona’s offense wasn’t nearly as effective.
While the Wildcats went cold, Washington heated up. C.J. Wilcox tied the score with a three-pointer and Terrence Ross scored on putback that gave Washington its first lead 70-68 with about 8:26 left.
At that point, you just knew this game would be decided in the final seconds.
Once the Huskies went ahead 72-68, no team led by more than four points. The lead changed four times and the game was tied four times.
This was college basketball at its best.
This was Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning executing the pick n’ roll like John Stockton and Karl Malone.
This was Holiday swiping passes and flying in for layups. His last one gave Washington an 84-80 lead with about 2:44 left.
This was Arizona’s Derrick Williams answering with an improbable, big-time three-pointer in front of the Wildcats bench.
A game this good needed a better finish.
As it was, Holiday did almost everything right when he blocked Jesse Perry’s mid-range jumper. Later the Husky forward said he could have played better defense early in the play, but I think Holiday was being too hard on himself.
He blocked the shot and unfortunately for Washington, the ball landed in Solomon Hill’s hands. He scored a layup with 17.5 seconds during the scramble, which proved to be the game-winning shot.
“On the one hand you could say it’s tough to lose like that,” Holiday said. “But we had our chances.”
The Huskies had their chances. Three of them in fact.
They squandered the first chance when Bryan-Amaning took too many steps in the post and the officials rightfully called him for traveling.
Arizona committed its 18th turnover seconds later when Hill threw the ball off of Jones’ foot and it bounced out of bounds.
Washington didn’t have a timeout and Romar astutely asked the refs to review the monitors to make sure the clock was correct. The move gave him time to huddle with his team and draw up a play.
The refs also added 0.4 seconds on the clock, giving UW 2.2 seconds to score.
You always second-guess plays that don’t work and conceptually diagramming a play for Darnell Gant seems somewhat odd considering the other options.
Still Holiday threw the inbound pass. Bryan-Amaning started in the paint and flared to the right wing and Gant curled left. Williams was supposed to follow Bryan-Amaning, but he read the play and stayed in the middle.
When Gant caught the pass, he immediately put up a short jumper that Williams swatted out of bounds. It’s debatable whether the ball was on the downward arc. Maybe at Hec Ed the Huskies get a goal tending call, but not on the road. Not in a game like this. Not with 14,500 screaming white-clad Wildcats fans and an ESPN audience watching.
The Huskies had one last attempt, but only 0.2 seconds remained.
Holiday threw the inbound pass again. He spotted Thomas open on the perimeter, but knew Thomas wouldn’t have enough time to shoot. The only option in that situation is to get a tip at the rim. So Holiday threw the ball at the basket and Williams punched it away.
Game over. Pac-10 regular-season title chance over. Pac-10 MVP race over. It belongs to Williams.
And now the Huskies find themselves at a familiar spot: the NCAA tournament bubble.
With four games left, Washington (18-8, 10-5 Pac-10) can’t afford many if any stumbles down the stretch or else they may need a strong conference tournament showing to revive their postseason hopes.
“We just need to take care of business and play strong,” Bryan-Amaning said.
Fortunately for the Huskies the rest of their regular-season games are at home where they’re 13-0 and have won every game by double digits.
MORE NOTES, QUOTES AND OBSERVATIONS:
— Bryan-Amaning was at times spectacular. He was phenomenal on both ends of the court. He scored 24 points. He finished with a career-high six blocks and a career-high tying three steals. He collected nine rebounds and distributed four assists. And Bryan-Amaning took over for a short stretch late in the second half. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done with the ball had he not traveled with about 3 seconds left. Williams was on his back and time was winding down. It was a critical turnover at an unfortunate time. Despite the mishap, Bryan-Amaning improved his NBA draft stock. Williams is projected as a lottery pick, but Bryan-Amaning looked as if he could be a first-rounder as well.
— Forget that mid-season shooting slump. Wilcox (above, right) is back. The redshirt freshman showed no fear of the moment. He’s taken over Scott Suggs’ role as three-point specialist and for the second straight game, he’s been sensational. Wilcox had 19 points, one fewer than his career high. He drained four three-pointers. When the Huskies needed a big basket, he delivered.
— Thomas finished with 12 points and nine assists and just two turnovers. He ran the offense with efficiency. He also played good defense.
— Holiday had 11 points.
— Gant made an unexpected start and he might have been the hero. Instead, he’s a footnote in an otherwise thrilling game. He finished with seven points and five rebounds.
— Aziz N’Diaye sat on the bench for the first two minutes of the game. I’m told the ESPN broadcasters said he was late for the team bus, which resulted in the punishment. There’s an internet report that says the same thing. When asked after the game, Romar said it was his decision and didn’t give any further explanation. Benching N’Diaye isn’t the reason Washington lost, but it’s a minor distraction at a time when the Huskies needed to be entirely focused. He played nine minutes and had more fouls (four) than points (two) and rebounds (two).
— Venoy Overton started for the first time in nine games. He did his best work in the second half when he tormented the Arizona guards and forced some turnovers. Overton was on the floor when Washington made its run. He had two steals for the first time in nine games. Overton also had six points and four assists.
— Terrence Ross has been quiet recently. It’s the third straight game in which he’s been a non-factor. He played 19 minutes and finished with five points on 1-for-3 shooting.
Photo credits: AP Photo – Wily Low