C.J. Wilcox and UW were smokin’ early. But his 19 points are ultimately not enough against the highest-ranked non-conference team to play in Alaska Airlines Arena since 2005.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – C.J. Wilcox was swishing 3s. The Dawgs’ defense was buzzing. The home crowd was rockin’ --like this could be another memorable, vintage day at ol’ Hec Ed, a brewing upset of 10th-ranked Connecticut.
“Our mindset is, we can play with anybody,” guard Andrew Andrews said later Sunday afternoon. “Our biggest thing is, can we sustain it?”
Against UConn -- like against San Diego State two Sundays ago, like against Boston College in New York last month -- was a dispiriting no.
Washington came out sparkling with patient, efficient offense and step-up defense. It had a 14-point lead 13 minutes into the game. It was its best sustained play in almost two seasons, against the highest-ranked non-conference opponent to play here in eight years.
But killer turnovers and increased intensity by those other Huskies flipped the vibe and the game, as Wilcox’s 19 points were not enough to keep at-times negligent Washington from an 82-70 loss Sunday before 7,059 at loud Alaska Airlines Arena.
“We had the opportunity to put our foot on them, but we let them go,” said Wilcox, who was 6 for 15 from the field, made his first two 3-pointers – then missed six of his final seven shots from deep.
“I think it was mostly us. We had a lot of unforced turnovers. ... When they started scoring a couple times we started to rush instead of staying patient like we were earlier in the game.”
The Huskies finished with 16 turnovers. UConn converted those into 23 points. Those gifts are how a top-10 team withstands an early rush by a spirited home team to win.
For UW coach Lorenzo Romar, this defeat – like the 70-63 one at No. 24 San Diego State which the Huskies had led by 10 late in the first half, like even Tuesday’s sloppy, uneven win at woefully playing Tulane – is a matter of this 6-5 team growing up.
“I just think we’ve got to mature,” Romar said. “The same thing happened at San Diego State. “Right now, we’re not mature enough to handle runs from the other team. We are not mature enough to handle the adversity that comes up during a season.”
UW left Sunday night for its Christmas break prior to Friday’s 7:30 p.m. home game against Mississippi Valley State knowing its season inside the rugged Pac-12 begins in less than two weeks, Jan. 2 at Jahii Carson and Arizona State and Jan. 4 at No. 1 Arizona. Four of Washington’s first six conference games are on the road.
So maturity, composure and an a ability to defend for all 35 seconds of a shot clock, to focus for all 40 minutes of a game, would be timely gifts under the Huskies’ trees this week.
“We better grow up really quick,” Romar said.
Like they were at Tulane in a 73-62 win Tuesday night, UW’s turnovers were baffling. Passes from the lane in the direction of open Huskies in the corner that sailed into the bench instead. Entry passes to the low post that rolled instead of bounced. Miscommunication on lob plays. Rushed throws in traffic, sometimes when there were no defenders pressuring.
“A lot of them had to do with, I think, our negligence,” Romar said of all the unforced mistakes, a spate that began in that San Diego State loss four games ago.
The Huskies were averaging nine turnovers per game entering this month. They have had 16, 13, 18 and now 16 turnovers in their last four games. And two of those have been wins.
Freshman Nigel Williams-Goss had three turnovers in Sunday’s pivotal first 7 minutes after halftime, when UW was trying to stay within 10 points of UConn. Tuesday at Tulane, he had three turnovers in the first 6 minutes after halftime, and seven in all.
“Good players bounce back,” Romar said of his McDonald’s High School All-American last spring. “He’ll bounce back.”Desmond Simmons made his season debut 6:28 into the game and got a huge roar from the crowd that was by far Washington’s loudest of the early season. The scrappy, 6-foot-7 junior made his first shot since preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, and had five points in his first couple minutes.
“It was good to finally get out there with the guys,” he said.
Romar said Simmons brought exactly what UW has come to expect him to bring these last three seasons: An instant jolt off the bench.
But Simmons and lead post threat Perris Blackwell finished the half on the bench with two fouls each. Simmons ended up with four fouls, those five points and just 12 minutes played. Blackwell had just four points and two rebounds with three fouls in a season-low 20 minutes.
Connecticut (10-1), the highest ranked non-conference home opponent for UW since Adam Morrison led No. 6 Gonzaga into Hec Ed on Dec. 4, 2005, went on a 26-8 run over the final 7 minutes of the first half. UConn turned up the pressure in its halfcourt defense, scrambling into multiple traps on each possession. UW missed eight of its last 12 shots of the half against the amped-up D.
Washington’s offensive efficiency didn’t return consistently in the second half, either. Wilcox began missing inside and outside against pesky Shabazz Napier, who also had 20 points and is far more known for his streaks of offense.
UW turned the ball over 11 times in the first 16 minutes of the second half, after having just five turnovers in the entire first half. That’s how the early, 14-point lead turned into a 78-64 hole with 4 minutes remaining.
That was long after Washington played the best, smartest 12 minutes of the season to begin the game. The guards were patient for Blackwell and Mike Anderson to get open at the bottom and top of the lane. They made good decisions. UW made 11 of its first 19 shots, with 10 of its first 12 points coming in the lane. The Huskies grabbed nine of the game’s first 13 rebounds.
“We came out and attacked early,” Wilcox said. “We expected the run to happen. We have to handle it better.”
When Wilcox swished his first two 3-point tries of the game, the second one off a ball screen by Shawn Kemp Jr., Washington led 31-17 with 7:03 left in the half. The matinee crowd was roaring, and UConn seemed reeling.
But, seemingly inevitably, Connecticut showed why it has bounced back this season from being ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of academics to a lethal, top-10 team.
And Washington showed it still has some growing up to do before the new year.
“I thought we played excellent basketball for the first 12 minutes. But the game is 40 minutes, not 12,” Romar said.
“We just have to be stronger mentally. We have to be mentally tough.”