Every basketball game against the Pac-12 Conference’s pre-eminent power, the University of Arizona, is a large occasion. Especially this one Saturday afternoon — near-sellout at Hec Ed, national TV and a wildly entertaining Huskies team on the rise. Plus, they had been shamed three weeks earlier with a 32-point loss in Tucson.
This match had all the markings, trappings, omens, footprints and scat of an upset. The 23rd-ranked Wildcats would crumble in the face of the renaissance underway in Montlake.
All of which was true, but didn’t account for one thing:
Arizona started four seniors. Washington started four freshmen.
Viewed that way, the fact that Huskies played splendidly on occasion. Losing merely 77-72 suggests magnum progress.
But in the ruthless business of major college basketball, it doesn’t count for squat. Coach Lorenzo Romar was the first to say so.
“When you’re climbing back up the mountain, as we are, there comes a defining moment where you have to sustain it,” he said. “I don’t feel like we got there yet. We’re climbing hard, gaining momentum. The top is in sight.
“But we didn’t quite get over the top . . . tough one to lose.”
Washington’s talented kids aren’t there yet.
They messed up just enough times to let Sean Miller’s team get away with one in which they were largely outplayed. The whoops and shouts coming from the visiting locker room indicated they were thrilled to have come out intact after a season-high crowd of 9,266 helped pester and heckle the Wildcats nearly to the abyss.
The Huskies outshot Arizona, played their best big-game defense of the season, forcing 20 turnovers and blocking 10 shots, and threw down energizing dunks at every turn.
“That’s a veteran team out there,” Romar said. “Every mistake we made, they took advantage of it.”
The biggest mistake was one every youth basketball coach laments until youngsters learn the game. So eager to go for the ball, the Huskies failed to block out. Arizona had 17 offensive rebounds to UW’s eight — the same number 6-9 forward Ryan Anderson had by himself.
The fifth-year senior from Long Beach, CA., powered past his negligent defenders, including an impressive sequence in the final 30 seconds that sealed the game.
Ahead 75-72 with the ball, Arizona’s Gabe York missed a long jumper that was retrieved by Anderson, who went up for the putback. His attempt was blocked by Matisse Thybulle, his sixth, another stellar game for him on defense.
But Anderson re-gathered himself and the ball. He went up again and was fouled by Marquese Chriss, his fifth and final.
With 17 seconds left, Anderson hit two free throws — his 10th and 11th– to put the game out of reach. For those who remember, Anderson’s play was a flashback to the days of Moses Malone, the ferocious NBA all-star who outworked everyone within four feet of the rim.
“Ryan Anderson took the game over on the backboard,” Romar said. “That was the difference.”
That was the decisive sequence, but the Huskies earlier made the sorts of small mistakes that saw them lose control of the game midway through the second half and left them vulnerable.
The most critical one came with 1:01 left and the Wildcats up 72-70. Starting guard Kadeem Allen, who hadn’t done much of anything all afternoon, was abandoned at the top of the key by his defender, Andrew Andrews, helping on the dribbler, York. He spotted the error, and rifled the ball to Allen, who hit his only three — and only his second shot — of the day.
“That was my fault,” said Andrews, the lone non-freshman starter who finished with a UW-high 20 points, but still remains off from his earlier production.
The Huskies may not have required perfection down the stretch if they had not had another grim episode of over-eagerness. Freshman Noah Dickerson, the lone starter with the size to help with the Arizona starting front line that goes 7-0, 6-9, 6-9, fouled out in seven minutes. No points, two rebounds.
“Noah left a huge hole,” Romar said. “Not only is he physical, but he scored 17 points in the first game (against the Wildcats). Without his physicality, Malik Dime played more minutes than he has all year. Down the stretch he was really tired.”
These are the ways of freshmen. No one is to blame; the youthfulness is also part of what makes this team so much fun to watch. While having five puppies playing under a blanket is guaranteed amusement, it is not the premium route to becoming one of 68 teams in the NCAA tournament field.
To get there, the Huskies have seven games left, plus the Pac-12 tournament, to make a favorable impression in the beauty contest that the tourney selectors create for the field’s final spots.
This was the game that could have turned the corner for Romar’s return to the tourney after a four-year absence that had some (many?) calling for his job. But no.
“The way the people came out; the crowd was behind us and backed us,” Romar said. “They’ve been waiting for this for a long, long time. Andrew . . . this is the first time he’s played in a situation like this at home. We let them down a little bit.”
If mountains were easy, Rainier’s summit would have a Dick’s Drive-In.
Seven games left to finish the climb.