Darnell Gant was no more than five feet to the right of the basket. At his height, 6-foot-8, and long arms, it was a high-percentage shot, just a flip, a gentle kiss off the glass and a tumble through the cylinder. It was a harder shot to miss than to make.
Gant was not rushed. He had enough time, 2.2 seconds, to catch the in-bounds pass, step up, spring toward the basket and release the ball. His basket would have given the Washington Huskies a one-point victory over Arizona Saturday.
But Arizona’s 6-foot-8 forward Derrick Williams left his feet in synchronization with Gant. The two were shoulder to shoulder high above the court. Williams timed his jumped so precisely that he avoided bumping Gant and used his long right arm to swat away the ball at its apex. Perhaps past its apex, but it would take an Act of Congress for the referees to declare goaltending in front of that crowd. How many games ever end like that?
That block essentially ended the Huskies’ hopes of upsetting the 12th-ranked Wildcats in a hostile house. That was the Huskies last best shot at the Pac-10 title. That was the season.
Now it’s a scramble to the finish. The Huskies have four games remaining, three in conference against Washington State, UCLA and USC. They have a decent opportunity to recover and repair themselves since all three conference games are at home, where they are 14-0 and have won all 14 by a record 10-points or more.
But they now have a ceiling. The best they can do is second best.
It was a loss that hurt the Huskies on so many levels. The conference title is out. They likely won’t return to the nation’s top 25. Derrick Williams is now ahead and shoulders above UW’s Isaiah Thomas for conference Player of the Year. They have fallen into the dark unknown in the eyes of the Selection Committee. And it’s a major shock to their confidence, pride and resolve.
It takes a lot out of you, not just physically but mentally,” UW forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning said. I just hope our guys are able to bounce back because we have three tough games coming up.”
This is the way the season has gone, a year of almosts, just-misses and not-quites.
Perhaps in another year, that Williams block would have been called goaltending. Not this year. That doesn’t fit the pattern.
It’s a pattern established more than a year ago, the fall of 2009. That’s when 6-foot-10, 305-pound center Josh Smith from Kentwood picked UCLA over Washington. During his freshman year with the Bruins (19-8, 10-4), he has helped them win 10 of their last 12 games and secure second place in the conference, just ahead of the Huskies. He’s averaging 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds.
Imagine if the Huskies had Smith’s wide body to deal with Williams? Imagine Smith working alongside Bryan-Amaning inside?
The Huskies lost that battle, but won the next one so they thought. The Huskies seemingly recovered from Smith’s rejection by signing two Portland standouts, 6-5 Terrence Ross and 6-8, 245-pound Terrence Jones on April 30 last year. Ross, smiling broadly and wearing a Husky cap, signed his letter of intent to be a Husky in a news conference. Jones, also with a ‘W’ cap, said he would be coming as well, but signed nothing. Something was wrong. Three weeks later, he ended up committing to Kentucky.
Jones, one of 30 Naismith Award candidates this year, leads the Wildcats in scoring (17.9) and rebounds (9.1) with 49 blocks. Imagine a quicker, more athletic Jones against Williams? Imagine how Jones would have fit into the Huskies’ uptempo offense? They wouldn’t be any of those three-game losing streaks.
Two ‘almosts.’ Two second places. Second place in recruiting doesn’t get you on any podiums. Then a final slap. On Thursday, highly regarded San Diego high school recruit 6-8 Angelo Chol picked Arizona over Washington to play ball next season. Not even a consolation prize for show for it.
The Huskies tried to make up for the Smith/Jones turn-downs with late signing of 7-foot Aziz N’Diaye. He has been functional but clearly a project with miles to go in his offensive development.
Regardless, the Huskies entered the season with experience, the best perimeter shooters in school history and a deep, versatile and talented bench. They could stand on equal footing with Kentucky and Michigan State at the Maui Invitational in late November.
They held late leads against both teams but ultimately lost to Kentucky by seven and MSU by five.
A pair of ‘just-misses.’
On Dec. 11, in their first true road challenge at Texas A&M, they lost by one point. Close again, but not even a morale victory.
Then on Jan. 4, three days after sweeping the L.A. schools on the road for just the third time in school history, the Huskies lost starting point guard Abdul Gaddy to a season-ending knee injury.
Thomas filled in remarkably well, winning three Pac-10 Player of the Week awards, but the evidence began building – this team was not quite the same, not quite as good without Gaddy.
Their season flow was further eroded by a sexual assault investigation Jan. 8 against a player who remained unnamed, thereby putting not one but every player under suspicion. Charges were never brought but the Huskies played like a team distracted in their subsequent game at Stanford Jan. 13, blowing an 11-point lead down the stretch and losing by two.
Almost but not quite.
There was that inexplicable three-game road losing streak, losing by seven, 12 and five points.
Now after a one-point loss to Arizona, they are 18-8 overall and in third place at 10-5. They have some supportive arguments for the Selection Committee to consider. Their RPI ranking is 36, one ahead of UCLA. They had the close losses to Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas A&M and Arizona a combination of 14 points. They also beat Arizona at home by 17 and UCLA on the road by 11. They have the chance to beat the Bruins again March 3 at Hec Ed. With that, they could run off four straight victories to finish the regular season, giving them 22 wins and a 7-3 record over their final 10 games.
The Pac-10 Tournament also looms. The Huskies were in the same position last year, finishing third then sweeping to the conference tournament championship. The Huskies won nine of their final 10 games before falling to West Virginia in the Sweet 16.
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,” Bryan-Amaning said. We have to play our way in right now.”
In a season of almosts and just-misses, the Huskies can’t afford to stumble down the stretch and not quite make the NCAA Tournament field.