Given that they had not won on the road this season, Washington’s 57-53 win Saturday at Pac-12 bottom-dweller Utah should be a point of minor celebration. But the way they played — passion-free and error-filled — the cork needs to be left in the champagne.
The Huskies (9-6, 3-1) missed six consecutive free throws down the stretch before Terrence Ross hit two with 8.9 seconds left to forestall another upset by the Utes (4-11, 1-2), who beat Washington State 62-60 in overtime Thursday with the the same slowdown, grinding tactics.
Anyone expecting some fire from the Huskies after the 87-69 defeat at Colorado Thursday was disappointed. Replacing in the starting lineup forward Darnell Gant with guard C.J. Wilcox, the Utah native, the Huskies started as cold as the Wasatch Valley morning (five inches of snow overnight), missing 12 of their first 14 shots.
After Wilcox missed eight of his nine first-half shots, coach Lorenzo Romar replaced him in the starting lineup in the second half with Desmond Simmons, and that seemed to help.
The 29-27 halftime lead grew to 41-31. But Utah’s stubby point guard and leading scorer, senior Josh Watkins, scored nine of the Utes’ next 11 points to make a game of it. Watkins finished with game-high 18 points, but Washington’s switch to a 2-3 zone defense seemed to slow him. The Utes closed to within three points twice, but came no further.
Despite the rocky route — the points were a season low and the Huskies shot 21-for-49 (43 percent) — Romar was pleased with the destination of a road win.
“It was huge,” he said. “The reason I’m so excited about it is the way we did it. We missed shots, but we took the right shots. We made the extra pass to get the bucket off it.
“People who see this score may not understand. We moved the ball better than we had. If we just made some shots, we’d have distanced ourselves here.”
Romar said the change from Gant to Wilcox was less about the hometown return and more about seeing whether a four-guard lineup made a difference offensively. Off one game, it was hard to say. Ross led Washington with 14 points (11 in the second half), but leading scorer Tony Wroten, playing more cautiously and seemingly preoccupied, finished with just eight points. A nervous Wilcox, who gathered 45 tickets for friends and family that helped enliven an otherwise sparse crowd on a bad travel day, missed 11 of 13 shots and finished with five points.
“It’s unfortunate that you come back home and you don’t shoot well,” Romar said. “The silver lining is I know how much pride he has. You watch — he’ll come back with a vengeance.”
Besides nine points and six rebounds from center Aziz N’Diaye, the bright spot was Simmons, whom Romar called “a warrior,” finishing with a game-high 10 rebounds along with six points.
The redshirt freshman’s continuing improved play may rate him a start Tuesday when the Huskies return home to face Seattle U., the last non-conference game of the year and the first of four in a row at home.