Whatever oddness happened in the final seconds of Washingtons 86-83 loss to North Carolina Sunday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was secondary to the fact that the element of contest came down to the final seconds.
Fercripesake, the Huskies were up against the Tar Heels, two years removed from a national championship and playing in their home state, where they had won 28 of 29 previous tourney games. The Huskies had an 11-point lead in the first half and controlled the game until the last five minutes.
Taller, more pedigreed and more pressure-tested, UNC and its over-wrought fan base were in semi-freak that they were about to be had by interlopers who had come 2,800 miles to stain the sissy-blue tradition.
In the end, Carolina cool prevailed. The Huskies in the last five minutes missed nine of their final 12 shots and made four turnovers. But the margin between the teams perhaps was even smaller than the margin on the scoreboard.
The game was not one of the tourneys predictable anomalies where the high-seed team fails to take seriously the low-seed team, where the underdog plays out of its mind while the favorite snoozes.
To prevail, Carolina had to play a high-end game, requiring an uncommonly productive effort from the least-regarded starter 13 points and 14 assists from point guard Kendall Marshall for the edge.
For the Pac-10 outlanders, it was their fifth consecutive premier performance against a quality opponent. Given the hand-wringing attendant to their regular season finish 5-6, including losses in two of the final three home games the Huskies finished with a flourish, even if it didnt get them again to the round of 16.
Starting with the Pac-10 tournament, in which they beat sudden nemesis Washington State for the first time in three tries, the Huskies defeated Oregon (which beat NCAA selection UCLA), Arizona and Georgia, and nearly pulled off the upset of a No. 2 seed Sunday.
Some responsibility for the shortfall inevitably will land on Isaiah Thomas, who had an off-game shooting (5-for-15). But Washington had relied so much on him, and Carolinas defense was so geared to stop him, that big help was needed elsewhere.
We limited his touches, said Marshall, who drew the defensive assignment, and forced other players to step up.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, a couple of veterans, Justin Holiday (four points in 23 minutes), and Venoy Overton (five points in 12 minutes, and some dubious judgments) failed to step up. Beating the Tar Heels in front of the their home fans was an all-hands proposition, and all hands werent quite there.
But given the distractions of the season the injury loss of starter Abdul Gaddy and the foolishness of Overtons sexual encounter with two 16-year-old girls to get as close as they did to the next round was an estimable feat.
Coach Lorenzo Romar said on the day Overton was charged with supplying the girls with liquor, a gross misdemeanor, that the season had been the hardest of his nine at Washington. He hasnt said specifically what that meant, but managing the players attitudes and emotions through such awkwardness had to be a large part of the trial.
Since the police investigation became public without identifying Overton, every player fell under some public suspicion, even though knowledge of the subject of the investigation became widespread, including opposing fans and their taunts. The players also had to work through the issue of backing a teammate and friend while being irked that his knuckleheadedness put the success of the season in jeopardy.
The midseason disturbance cost Washington a lot of basketball momentum, and burned up some political capital for Romar, whom some said should have booted Overton. But since conflicting witness accounts precluded a sexual-assault charge, Romar was right in not firing him. The lesser charge also could have merited a boot, but Romars Christian conscience prevailed in concluding Overton, and the nearby world, were better off with a suspension rather than an expulsion.
Certainly, it worked out for the team and its fans, who saw the Huskies play with greater abandon once resolution lifted the cloud.
Since many will conclude that basketball welfare was the primary reason for Overtons retention, Romar and the program will have to live with the hit.
Following the decision, the only real retort was to play basketball hard and well. That they did, for all but the last five minutes of the season.
Since the NCAA tourney crucible is less forgiving than Romar, coming up five minutes and four points short was sufficient to end matters.
If there was shame in the middle, there was no shame at the end.