C.J. Wilcox scores 20 points in his homecoming -- but goes almost 17 minutes without a basket in the game’s decisive stretch. Nigel Williams-Goss adds 19 and Desmond Simmons gets a career high-tying 14 in a rare start. Next for the Huskies (13-10, 5-5 Pac-12): Sunday at Colorado.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SALT LAKE CITY – After doing just as he did three games ago -- displaying steely, beyond-his-freshman-class determination to rescue leading scorer C.J. Wilcox and the Huskies -- Nigel Williams-Goss stood alone in the tunnel leading out of Utah's Huntsman Center.
Despite a hip pointer that kept him out of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, Williams-Goss scored 19 points. Twelve came after halftime, when Wilcox vanished. This time, though, unlike in the win two weeks ago over Oregon State in which he scored a UW freshman-record 32 points, Williams-Goss' heroics weren't enough.
Neither were Wilcox's 20 points while playing a half hour from his hometown, or Desmond Simmons's career high-tying 14 in his first start in more than a year. None of that helped on the defensive end. That's where the Huskies were most needy -- again -- in this sloppy, 78-69 loss to the Utes Thursday night.
Afterward, before heading out into the cold Utah night, Williams-Goss acknowledged Washington's uneven season is at a potentially decisive tipping point.
"I mean, it's urgent, you know what I'm sayin'?" the point guard said to summarize the state of these Huskies (13-10, 5-5 Pac-12). "We're 5-5. Especially with the race being so close, we know every game is huge.
"Now all we can do is focus on getting a split."
That would mean a victory Sunday night at Colorado. That's where this rugged conference trip concludes, following a Friday morning flight to Denver and then a bus ride to Boulder, where it was minus-9 on Thursday.
Wait, it can't get any more rugged than this night ... can it?
For the second time in five days, the Huskies led on the road in the second half. And for the second consecutive game, they suddenly, decisively went blank -- on both offense and defense.
Wilcox's 20 points were deceptive. He scored none for more than 16 crippling minutes, until free throws in the final minute and then a meaningless lay in with 5.6 seconds left. The latter was his first basket in exactly 17 minutes. Utah rallied from down 2 to up 11 while Wilcox disappeared, along with the Huskies' on-ball defense.
"I know we got a lot of good looks ... we were getting what we waited offensively. But our defense was the main thing -- again," said Wilcox, who was 6 for 12 overall while playing for the final time as a collegian near his home in the Salt Lake City suburb of Pleasant Grove.
"Even when we did score we let them score at the other end," Wilcox said.
Williams-Goss drove inside for a score to put UW ahead 51-49 with 11:25 remaining. But the Huskies never led again because they didn't score over the next 5:48. Wilcox went 0 for 2 in the spell, including a missed layup in traffic. Andrew Andrews, playing on a sore ankle, missed three more shots in the drought. He went 0 for 11 to begin the game and 1 for 12 overall.
But as Wilcox alluded to, those shooting woes looked a lot worse while Utes ran free down the lane at the other end. Some got free off ball screens, the same problem UW had in Saturday's loss at Washington State. Other Utes got free simply by blowing past Huskies who weren't moving their feet to stay in front of the ball.
Or couldn't. Many Dawgs panted and wheezed in their first game at high altitude since last March's NIT first-round loss at nearby Brigham Young. Wilcox said that fatigue was a big factor in the second half, and Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar wondered if some of his guys may have "run out of gas."
Utah (15-7, 4-6) stunned the Huskies by making 17 of its 25 shots in the second half. That's 68 percent. Then again, when a team is driving into the lane as free as sports cars on a freeway at 3 a.m., it tends to shoot well; 28 of the Utes' 40 points in the paint (to just 26 for Washington) came after halftime.
"We had a poor defensive effort in the second half. And they made us pay for it," Romar said.
Romar sensed that as the missed shots -- many of them wide open -- mounted, the defense sagged among his demoralized guards. Mental errors such as not helping on screens, not switching, not doing anything, led to Utes roaming like free-range cattle across these foothills of the Wasatch Mountains.
"Sometimes when we see the ball not go into the basket, I think it affects us on the defensive end," Romar said.
"We have to be mentally tougher than that."
That seems to be the crux of the issue.
"In the heat of the game you just have to dial in and be perfect on defense," Simmons said.
"We just have to guard better. Flat out."
It's not like Romar and his staff aren't coaching defense. They've already changed the scheme in November, from more than a decade of Huskies being out aggressively trying to deny passes to the perimeter wings to a more help-oriented, lane-packing defense. That was a late-November response to teams such as UC-Irvine and Indiana scoring at will in the lane on dribble penetration and interior passes early during UW's 6-5 start to the season.
The Huskies won seven of 10 games with the new defense. They've lost four of six lately.
"We thought we had the defensive thing squared away," Romar said. "And it's come back ... we've taken a couple of steps backwards in that regard.
"That has been a pattern, so we have to fix it."
As he said he needed to be, Williams-Goss was much more aggressive than he was Saturday in the loss at Washington State when he didn't score until 25 minutes into the game. When he lowered his shoulder, got bumped and made a running shot in the lane while falling to the floor, then made the ensuing free throw for a 3-point play with 2:22 left, UW -- despite all its troubles -- trailed just 65-61.
"Nigel, you could just see down the stretch he was trying to will us to a win," Romar said, "like he has before."
After a Utah score Simmons, starting for Mike Anderson because of defense, continued his surprising night. He scored inside off another drive and pass by Williams-Goss. That kept the Huskies within four with 1:56 to go.
But then, with just 3 seconds left on the shot clock and 1:24 remaining in the game, Utah's Brandon Taylor made a crucial 3-pointer from the corner over a Husky arm. That pushed the lead back to seven, 70-63 and essentially ended UW’s final, frantic rally behind all the drives by the determined Williams-Goss.
As the Utes won for the 19th time in 21 home games, the Huskies prepared to head on to Colorado knowing they are confronting a mile-high challenge.
"Definitely, we don't take this lightly. We've lost two in a row," Simmons said. "There's definitely a sense of urgency."