LAS VEGAS – Sin City comes alive, for better AND worse, when the sun goes down.
It is a strange and unique city, this gambling oasis in the desert. That certainly rings true when four college conferences descend upon Las Vegas each March to stage basketball tournaments.
The NCAA, the patron saint of collegiate sports (the NCAA would like us to believe, anyway), looks the other way when its pure-as-the-driven-snow athletes (the NCAA would like us to believe, anyway) play at casino-owned arenas built with gambling dollars.
Millions of those dollars are wagered annually a 3-pointer or three away from the courts where an orgy of college hoops is taking place this week. Combine that with the fact that players are staying in the same hotels as gamblers who could profit from certain actions that could impact certain bets . . . gosh, what could possibly go wrong?
Not so much as a hint of funny business has emerged since the Pac-12 moved its basketball shindig to the MGM Grand Garden Arena in 2013. Besides, no shady characters could ever arrange as many against-all-odds scenarios as the Washington Huskies and Stanford Cardinal provided Wednesday night for all the right reasons. That is, the willingness – indeed, the NEED — to sacrifice buckets of sweat in pursuit of victory.
Any reputable Las Vegas bookie would have been hesitant to even place odds that Washington would:
- Play so gamely and, at times, heroically, before losing a 71-69 thriller on a 3-point bomb from Stanford star Chasson Randle – who made just 2 of 10 shots to that point — with 2.4 seconds left. The Huskies, mind you, were seeded 11th after losing 10 of 12 games coming into the tournament.
- Be led in scoring in the first half by walk-on Dan Kingma. The scrappy freshman guard, whose listed height of 5-foot-10 makes for great comedy, went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc before halftime for all of his career-high nine points.
- Push a bigger, stronger, deeper Stanford team to the brink of defeat despite being outscored 36-10 in the paint, 14-7 on second-chance baskets, 11-0 on free throws and 17-4 off turnovers.
Stanford’s inside dominance ultimately sealed the Huskies’ fate. The fifth-seeded Cardinal (19-12) out-rebounded Washington 35-26, including 11-5 on the offensive glass. Marcus Allen steered one last offensive rebound to Randle for the game-winning shot, which stood up when Andrew Andrews’ long, running, 3-point attempt bounced off the back rim at the final horn.
“We get that rebound,” Andrews said, “we probably would have won the game.”
Romar and his players went out of their way to give Kingma a free pass on missing the front end of a 1-and-1 free-throw opportunity with 28.5 seconds left. The Cardinal grabbed the rebound (naturally), then ran down the clock before Randle struck gold.
“Without his (Kingma’s) first half, who knows what would have happened?” Andrews asked.
“I told him I love him like a brother,” Nigel Williams-Goss said. “I told him there was not another walk-on in the tournament stepping up for his team the way he did for us in the first half. Dan is going to be a heck of a player.”
Williams-Goss, who considered turning pro last year after his freshman season, was noncommittal when asked if he’ll be back next season. Andrews, who plans to graduate this summer and had not made it clear if he would considering transferring for his senior year, said it’s “definitely my goal” to remain with the Huskies.
Andrews’ continued his torrid scoring down the stretch by recording a game-high 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting, including 4-for-9 from beyond the arc. Williams-Goss added 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Wiliams-Goss was guarded tenaciously by Anthony Brown, who buried four shots from 3-point range and scored 16 points. Brown, however, somehow managed to blow a breakaway dunk with four minutes left. Williams-Goss and Andrews followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to give Washington momentum and a 69-63 lead, and it looked like the Huskies would get a chance to knock off 17th-ranked Utah for the second time in five days in Thursday’s second round of tournament play.
It was not to be. Romar would never admit it, but he could not be surprised after watching his team slip from 11-0 and ranked 13th in the nation to finishing (barring a post-season invitation) 16-15 and coming in 11th in the Pac-12. Of course, injuries to Washington’s front line, plus the dismissal of shot-blocking phenom Robert Upshaw, figured prominently in the collapse.
“What happened here (losing so many big men), I don’t know if any team in the world would have enough in the history of basketball,” Romar said.
Even in the wake of a stunningly bitter defeat, Romar took a moment to reflect on a memorable basketball game, and a memorable effort by his team.
“It was a heck of a ball game,” he said. “I really, really feel for our players.
“Our guys fought. Our guys played together. We came up short. You hate to see it when someone puts forth like that and came up on the short end.”