Washington basketball coach Lorenzo Romar is not prone to hyperbole. He’s generally measured in his comments. He likes to be thorough and precise with the media.
But there are rare times when he’ll depart from the conversational game plan, as he did Thursday, with some high praise of freshman guard C.J. Wilcox. Wilcox scored a career-high 24 all in the second half in lifting the Huskies to a 70-63 victory over UCLA at a raucous Hec Ed Pavilion.
A freshman goes down to Arizona in a game for first place and scores 19 points in a hostile environment,” Romar said. Then with all that was at stake tonight, he scores 24 points in the second half. That’s a performance I’ll never forget.
To me, that’s one of the greatest performances maybe in the history of the program. That’s me talking off the top of my head. How many players have scored 24 in a half when it’s not a 50-point blowout, but in a meaningful game like this?”
This game was the most meaningful all season. The Huskies (20-9, 11-6 in the Pac-10) desperately needed the victory over the the Bruins (21-9, 12-5) to enhance their post-season status. The Bruins came to Seattle in a tie with Arizona (24-6, 13-4) for first place in the Pac-10. It also gave the Huskies a 20-win season, the fifth in nine seasons for Romar.
Mentally rewinding his career, including his years as an assistant at UCLA when it won the NCAA title, Romar hyper-ed on, I’ve never seen a freshman do what he did in the second half of a game.”
It was as surprising as it was remarkable. Wilcox had started but played just six minutes in the first half, missing both his attempts. Despite constructing a breakthrough during the Arizona trip, in his previous two games he was 2-for-14 for eight points in 43 minutes. He missed eight of 10 three-point attempts. He was heading in the wrong direction.
Then in the opening minute of the second half, he hit his first shot. Romar sensed it right there. He started calling plays for him.
Wilcox followed with an 18-footer and the Huskies led 29-25.
Its been something thats happened lately, weve taken a lot of contested threes and coaches have been saying to take good ones,” Wilcox said. Unless were open we try to keep the ball moving and get an open shot.”
While Wilcox was gearing up, the team’s leading scorer, Isaiah Thomas, was 0-for-8 and scoreless at the time (he finished with just nine points). Forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning could find no room to maneuver under the basket and made just three of 11 shots to finish with seven points. The other four starters were 9-of -37.
If the Huskies didn’t have Wilcox, they had no chance.
I remember when I came on my visit,” said UCLA center Joshua Smith, who chose the Bruins over the Huskies last year coming out of Kentwood High. I watched him and I knew he was a good shooter. When you leave a guy wide open and he gets a rhythm, it’s Ray Allen.”
Maybe that’s pushing the hype a little over the top, comparing a 19-year-old freshman to the NBA’s greatest three-point shooter. But let’s go with it.
Our defense played was really good tonight with the exception of Wilcox,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. If Im not mistaken Wilcox had 24 points in the second half. We had a one-point lead going into the half and we missed a shot then he came down and got them going.
With a player like him, your job is to make him bounce the ball. You play close enough so he cannot bring the ball up to shoot. He hit some big shots.”
Those two quick baskets gave Wilcox the sense that this was going to be a special half. Or perhaps he just remembered Wednesday’s practice when he was ordered to run the court once for NOT taking an open shot.
I’ve done that probably twice. I think I had Tre Simmons do that,” Romar said. It only happens to the good shooters.”
His teammates found him. Wilcox started cranking without guilt.
He made two large shots down the stretch. His first was at 4:49 with the Bruins leading by four, 53-49, and gathering momentum. He swung over to the left side of the circle and swish, down by one. That would start a winning 10-0 run.
The Huskies were ahead 56-53 inside three minutes when the shot clock dropped past 10 seconds. Romar flashed a play as Thomas was coasting past the bench. His instruction was not unexpected — find Wilcox. He took the pass, floated across the key and hit a running 19-footer hit foot was on the line and wast fouled. The three-point play was a killer.
That crushed the spirit of the Bruins, who went 4:16 down the stretch between points. Howland contributed to that lapse. He kept calling timeouts to prevent momentum runs like Wilcox started.
He used two quick timeouts in the first half to quiet things down and two more in the second half. His first came 18:11 just after a Wilcox’s basket and one at 12:57 after another Wilcox basket. He had none left over the final 12 minutes. His players had no legs left as well.
I knew they were out of timeouts with 13 minutes left,” Romar said. We certainly weren’t going to call any.”
Romar said the Bruins may have been weary but he credited the defense much of that. For 40 minutes, we guarded,” he said. And we needed every bit of that 40 minutes.”
Justin Holiday said he understands everyone wanted to talk about Wilcox and the offensive plays but it was the defense that made us think we had the chance to win. When we were down, we knew we were going to get the stops to come back and get the win.”
The victory meant that the Huskies swept the Bruins in the season series for just the third time in school history, joining the 1987 and 2005 teams. They impressed Howland.
I think Washington is a very good team,” he said, that could really do some damage in the NCAA tournament.”
That may not be just hype.