C.J. Wilcox hit a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining to lift the Washington Huskies to a 74-72 victory over Cal-State Fullerton Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena in a game in which the Huskies appeared to be toast by halftime. Barely showing a pulse, UW trailed 43-29 at intermission, then staged an improbable comeback in the final 20 minutes behind Desmond Simmons, Wilcox and Andrew Andrews to eke out their second win in a row.
The Huskies, 4-3, barely avoided a third non-conference loss on their home court (they had previously lost to Albany and Colorado State) since December of 2000 when Wilcox, just 3-for-14 in the first half, broke a 72-72 tie with two foul shots.
But the story of the comeback belonged to Simmons, who came off the bench and energized the Huskies with the best performance of his career against a team that entered the contest averaging 88.5 points per game, best scoring offense in the NCAA. Simmons scored 14 points and pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds, adding three steals in a performance reminiscent of Jon Brockman on his best day.
In fact, Simmons’ 18 rebounds were the most by a Husky since Brockman had 18 in a 76-74 loss to Purdue in the 2009 NCAA Tournament (Brockman also had 18 in a 2007 game against Utah).
“That’s how I see my job,” said Simmons, “to come in a provide a spark. I look to pick things up when I come into the game. Tonight, we just had to come back from that first punch we took. We knew what we had to do in the second half, get out there and get physical and start guarding guys.”
The Titans overwhelmed the Huskies in the first half, first racing to a 17-4 lead as Washington struggled to find any rhythm and wilted under Cal-State’s fast break attack. By halftime, D.J. Seeley of the Titans had 15 points and the Huskies seemed on their way to one of their worst home-court defeats since losing to South Dakota State in December, 2011. Wilcox, who scored 55 points in his previous two games, had just seven points at halftime and was Washington’s leading scorer.
“I don’t don’t know why we were so lethargic in the first half,” said head coach Lorenzo Romar. “We made just 9-for-30. However, we came back in the second half and played with a lot more life and energy. Desmond Simmons was just a monster for us. He did a phenomenal job and made a lot of plays. He was just extremely active.”
Washington whittled Fullerton’s halftime advantage to at 43-33 with 10:38 left. It was 55-49 with 11:38 left after a 3-pointer by Wilcox. The Huskies were back in the game with 10:47 to go when a Simmons free throw made it 55-52. Cal-State ran its lead to 61-54, but the Huskies cut the margin to 63-61 with 5:07 left and tied the game at 63 on a put-back by Simmons with 4:14 left.
Washington took its first lead since 2-0 at 67-65 with 2:47 left on a slam by Aziz N’Diaye. Tied at 69 with 21.5 seconds left, Andrews hit two free throws, made a steal with 10.9 seconds left and hit a free throw for a 72-69 lead. Seeley’s 3-pointer tied the score, but a backcourt foul on Wilcox allowd him to the line to make the final difference.
“The game says we have some grit in there,” said Romar. “We just have to wear that on our chest every time we play. I think this will prove to be a huge, huge win for us down the road.”
Washington shot 40 percent from the floor, but the Huskies outscored the Titans from the foul line 22-5.
Wilcox recovered to finish with 21 points. Andrews had a career-high 13. Guard Abdul Gaddy had nine points and six assists. Seeley led all scorers with 24 points.
Washington improved to 25-3 all-time against the Big West and now has won 11 straight against the conference.
The Huskies are idle until Saturday when they host the University of Nevada (5 p.m. start), a team that defeated Washington last season 76-73. That defeat helped cost the Huskies a trip to the NCAA Tournament.