LOS ANGELES — What kind of coach would start a freshman for the first time in his career in a game that could be the team’s last of the season?
Crazy-like-fox Lorenzo Romar, coach of the Washington Huskies.
He started 6-foot-6 guard Terrence Ross Thursday night against Washington State in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament. Ross did not even play in the Huskies’ previous game, Saturday against USC. In the two previous games, he scored no points in 17 total minutes. He was 0-for-5 in 13 minutes Feb. 17 against the same team he would start against.
Why, when this game had the whole season riding on it? Some college basketball devotees believed the Huskies (21-10) had already earned the right to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Others believed they had not earned anything, that they had to win the tournament, or get to the final game, to advance.
The Cougars (19-12) beat the Huskies twice. They were equally motivated. They had to get to the finals to give them a chance at the NCAAs.
Was it foolhardy or did Romar sense something?
No question. I’m probably more of a feel guy anyway,” Romar said. When you sense that somebody is ready to break loose, you go with it.”
He started Ross, who responded with 17 points in a season-high 29 minutes as the Huskies overcame a 40-32 halftime deficit and a record 43-point effort by Klay Thompson for an 89-87 victory.
For Romar, coaching is as much about feel as Xs and Os. He has a sense of where his players are, especially after 31 games. He can tap into where they are mentally and emotionally.
He defended his start of Ross from a strategic perspective because he said he’s the team’s best rebounder among the guards. He also wanted same-sized players on the floor to set up screens. But Ross is not a polished defender, acutely important in this game since the team was without its best defender, Venoy Overton, suspended for the tournament after being charged Tuesday with distributing liquor to a minor.
Even though he didn’t play in that last game, we know what he’s capable of doing,” said Romar. I was quoted as saying, it’wouldn’t surprise me if he had 20 points in this game.
Terrence is learning the defensive end of the floor. He’s getting better and sometimes that’s what keeps him from being in there.”
Ross was the second freshman starter; the other, redshirt guard C.J. Wilcox. He could have gone with junior Scott Suggs, who played in the tournament a year ago that the Huskies won. He’s more experienced, and presumably moreable to help Ross adjust to the big stage.
Wilcox also was wildly erratic. Last week he made 7-of-10 Thursday against UCLA for a career-high 24 points, then clanged it against USC Saturday, going 1-for-7 and four points.
But Romar had a sense, again. He wanted Wilcox because he knew his team had to get off to a hot start. ?
Ross hit his first shot at 19:14 a three-pointer. Wilcox hit his team’s second shot a three-pointer at 17:56. For a team struggling with shooter’s confidence, those were the two biggest shots of the game.
You know after you hit a couple shots,” Wilcox said, coach starts drawing up plays for you and you feel you have a responsibility to step up and knock down shots.”
Even guessing right on those two guys, the problem was the Cougars were relentless. They held a 40-32 lead at halftime. They led by as many as 13, 30-17, with 9:33 left and countered everything the Huskies did.
So with the season on the brink at halftime, Romar needed an understanding of where his players were, and what he expected. He cut them loose with some full-court trapping and in-your-face man defense, a gamble because the Cougars had shown they could exploit anything. It could get worse.
The beginning of the second half early, I think Isaiah (Thomas) got us going,” Romar said. He just pressured the ball and we got a five-second count really early and began to press them. Everyone kind of followed his lead on the defensive end.”
The Huskies had a 10-0 run and 2½ minutes later, they had their first lead, 42-40. The Cougars knew the Huskies had awakened.
That’s the first thing coach said, ‘We were down 12 or 14 to Oregon State (in the opening game) last year,’ ” Thomas said. I yelled at the guys, telling them we don’t want this to be our last game. We don’t want the season to end right now.”
It turned into the most entertaining second half of the season. Thompson scored 25 of his 43, breaking the tournament record of 41 set by ASU’s Leon Powe in 2006. Thomas scored 16 of his his 21 in the second half. He also had 11 assists, a tournament record, and his fourth double-double of the season.
The Cougars were irrepressible, however. They rebuilt an eight-point lead, 54-46 at 14:19, before the Huskies reversed it and had a seven-point lead, 82-75 with 3:49 left.
But Romar, believing in his freshmen, gave them critical minutes on the floor down the stretch. Wilcox had 13 of his 16 points in the second half.
With UW up 88-85, Thompson, eschewing the three as the Huskies had expected, dribbled through a couple defenders and laid it in. One-point game with 15 seconds left.
The Huskies came up with two smart plays, no doubt inspired by Romar’s X-and-O side. The first was when Suggs found himself at the end of a long pass, wide open and breaking toward the basket. However, he veered off, figuring it was better to run the clock than to put up a shot. Defenders followed him until he saw Thomas alone underneath. That made for an easy layin and an 88-85 score with nine seconds left.
WSU coach Ken Bone called time to set up the final play. It also gave Romar an opportunity to prepare for the second smart play. He wanted someone to foul and not on a three-pointer. So Suggs hacked Reggie Moore with 2.4 seconds left. He missed the first of a 1-and-1 but Thompson slipped in and put back a quick basket with four-tenths of a second left.
It was essentially over at that point, but Bone called a timeout he didn’t have. That earned a technical. Wilcox, fittingly selected to take the shots, made one. The inbounds pass ended it and the Huskies advanced to the semifinals against Oregon.
That is a true team in every sense of the word,” Romar said of the Ducks, who upset No. 2 seed UCLA, 76-59. They play well together. They play hard. They play with a lot of intensity. We need to come ready to play, because I know they will.”
He has a sense about things.