Washington finally proved to itself against Arizona Saturday that it has the mettle, toughness and talent to make a decent run in the NCAA Tournament.
Now if only the Huskies can get into the NCAA Tournament.
The Huskies (18-8, 10-5 in the Pac-10) did a whole bunch of things right against the 12th-ranked Wildcats (23-4, 12-4), but couldn’t finish it. Arizona forward Derrick Williams blocked dramatically a Darnell Gant jump hook with two-tenths of a second remaining to preserve the Wildcats’ 87-86 victory before a sold-out, “white-out” crowd of drained screamers at McKale Center in Tucson.
The Huskies came to the desert coated with the residue of their previous woeful road trip to the Oregon schools. They lost twice, shooting poorly and looking disoriented at times. That was part of a three-game road losing streak. There was a question whether the Huskies could play well outside Seattle. There was a question whether they could handle the pressure of a showdown game.
After handily beating Arizona State Thursday (79-62), the Huskies had to go through the Wildcats to get to the Pac-10 Conference crown. The Huskies didn’t win, but came as close as possible.
A key development was they competed well in a hostile environment in which the notorious Pac-10 referees seemed swayed by the 14,000 Wildcat partisans.
We can’t get it (the conference title) done now. We have to move on and make sure we get in this NCAA Tournament,” UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said. It hurts that we can’t be the champion right now. We were picked to win the league and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. But if we can continue to rebound and get better in these next three weeks, I think our team is good enough to make some noise.”
Down 12 in the second half, the Huskies came back hard on the road against a top-ranked team.
They could have folded several times when the Wildcats continued to stretch the lead, but they maintained poise.
They exploited the inside, especially in the second half, with dribble penetration and precision passing many to forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning instead of settling for the perimeter jumper.
They didn’t back down when knocked around and, in fact, pushed back with some vigor.
They worked the pick-and-roll beautifully, a play that somehow disappeared when they crossed the Oregon border two weeks ago.
They generated their own energy, a necessary quality for them to build their confidence under stressful conditions. That’s going help them enormously if/when they get into the NCAAs.
We did a lot of good things here tonight,” Romar said, but not quite enough to get the victory.
We’re a better basketball team than we were two weeks ago. I think right now we’re a better basketball team than we were before we dropped the three in a row. I think we’re pretty good right now.”
None of those good things were present, however, when the game began. In fact, a couple players weren’t present. Junior guard Scott Suggs, who strained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Thursday against ASU, sat out. He may miss at least a couple more games. Senior guard Venoy Overton, a key in the Huskies’ resurgence, started in his spot.
Also, Gant started instead of center Aziz N’Diaye, disciplined for being late for the team bus. He came off the bench for the first time since Nov. 24.
Much as in the ASU game, the Huskies came out slow. Against the Sun Devils, they trailed 15-7 six minutes into the game before out-scoring them 38-20 to close out the half. Against Arizona, they trailed 10-2 at the three-minute mark and 16-6 at 15:58. The Wildcats held a 49-40 lead at intermission.
Romar made adjustments at half with the clear intention of working the ball inside in any way possible. The Wildcats doubled down on Bryan-Amaning in the first half, limiting his touches and success. He had six points.
But he finished with 24 because “we got the pick-and-roll going knowing they could double down on me and that would give C.J. (Wilcox) some wide-open looks (on the kick out),” Bryan-Amaning said. It was kind of pick your poison.”
Wilcox scored 19 points, time after time saving the Huskies from sinking.
Overton and Isaiah Thomas had 13 assists as they steadily found MBA, Gant or Justin Holiday with crisp passes underneath. Wilcox hit four of the Huskies’ five three-pointers. They attempted just 16 shots behind the arc, fewest since 15 on Dec. 31 against UCLA.
The emphasis was clear.
We’ve bounced back from how we were two weeks ago against the Oregon schools,” Bryan-Amaning said. The way we’ve improved and practiced we’ve been competing a lot better. That definitely carried over into the games. Arizona is a real physical team, a real tough team and we were able to battle them at their own gym.”
It’s also tough to lose, knowing that they have drifted into selection limbo as the third team in a weak Pac-10 and without a signature win on the road. They’ve lost the chance at the title. The virtually have to win out to assure a bid, although one more loss may not be fatal.
We finished third last year and ended up going to the Sweet 16,” Bryan-Amaning added. We just have to have the attitude that every game you play is your last game and knowing that we’re not in the Tournament. We have to play our way in right now.”
The Huskies close with four games at home, Seattle University Tuesday at KeyArena, Washington State Sunday, then UCLA March 3 and USC March 5.