Down to the final minute they went, Gonzaga and Washington trading big plays and clutch shots. They had the crowd roaring, standing, jumping and calling for more. On Sunday night, a percolating Alaska Airlines Arena was the place to be, not in front of a TV set somewhere watching the Seahawks get manhandled.
In the end, though, history stayed on the side of the Zags once more as they toughed out an 83-76 victory and continued the never-ending dominance of their state rival, now 13 wins over the past 14 games.
The young Huskies would have to settle for style points and high compliments from the other side. It was fun while it lasted.
“I think they’re really, really good,” coach Mark Few said of the Huskies. “Like very good. As good as we’ve seen.”
While the team from Spokane led nearly the entire contest, Mike Hopkins’ club had the ball and was still within a shot from beyond the arc of tying things inside the final minute. But the difference between the ninth-ranked Zags (10-1) and No. 22 Huskies (7-2) was this: The winning team finished; the other guys didn’t.
Trailing 79-76, UW’s Naz Carter tried to muscle his way to the basket, got caught off balance and couldn’t put the ball down. The Zags came back and Joel Ayayi drained a 3-pointer that almost looked like a lob pass. A miss and a make. It was that simple. Game over.
“The coach said we were a most talented team,” freshman forward Isaiah Stewart said, referring to Hopkins. “They were just a better team.”
Stewart was hardly bashful in this 40-minute battle, supplying a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds. He missed one shot from the floor in seven attempts and another from the foul line in 10 tries. He found he could hang with the Zags.
“I was very impressed with Stewart,” Few said. “His hands. How he catches the ball. How he finishes. How he makes free throws.”
Gonzaga looked as well-coached as ever, with each starter finishing in double figures, led by sophomore forward Filip Petrusev. He contributed 17 points off a lot of one-handers close in and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Even better was Zags senior forward Killian Tillie. For a 6-10 big man, he had a stat line to die for: 15 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals. He also was unflappable.
With 2:54 left in the game, the Zags up by 72-70 and the shot clock running down, Tillie casually sank a 30-footer. Just hit the bottom of the net without changing the expression on his face. A miss there, and Gonzaga might have folded.
“Tillie is the best zone player you can have in college basketball,” Few said. “You can play him anywhere.”
The game was a sellout and such a happening that former UW players Dejounte Murray of the San Antonio Spurs and Quincy Pondexter, an NBA free agent, joined in the excitement as spectators.
The Huskies led only 3-2, 5-2 and 5-4, and played nonstop catch-up. But they wouldn’t back away. They trailed 41-37 at the half. They fell behind by as much as nine and came rushing back. They kept the pressure on. It wasn’t enough.
“You play a top-10 team and every play matters,” Hopkins said. “I thought the difference was turnovers.”
The Huskies had 19, to Gonzaga’s 12. They outshot the Zags 50.9 percent to 47.8 percent. There wasn’t much difference between them.
The outcome wasn’t what they wanted, but the Huskies found solace in turning their arena into someplace spilling over with passion. Hopkins saw people everywhere hollering and applauding, more so than in previous home games. It got him fired up.
“Tonight was electric,” the coach said. “I’m kind of bummed we weren’t able to give them something. That environment is what makes great college programs.”
The Huskies are off for more than a week before playing Seattle U. at home Dec. 17 and heading to the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu for the Christmas holidays.
Dan Raley is a former Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports writer whose work can be found at Sports Ilusrated/Maven.