Feb. 27, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The upcoming Pac-10 tournament just got far more important than the Huskies wanted it to be.
Washington endured their lowest-scoring first half in nine years, since Lorenzo Romar became their coach. They fell behind by 21 midway through the second half against Washington State, then had their furious rally to within six points snuffed out by a torrent of made Cougars free throws in a stunning, 80-69 loss to their rivals at Alaska Airlines Arena on Sunday night.
"No, I didn't see this coming at all," Romar said.
The coach was speechless. Literally.
Asked what his message was to his players inside the most somber locker room at Alaska Airlines Arena in 12 months, Romar said, "I didn't give one."
He will save the talking for breaking down film Tuesday.
"Games like this, you can rant and rave, but it's not about me ranting and raving. It's about us showing them what went wrong - and then them correcting it and building on it," he said.
Washington (19-9, 10-6 Pac-10) lost for the first time at home in 15 games dating to Feb. 18, 2010. The Dawgs' school record of 14 consecutive home victories by at least 10 points is history.
So, too, is a seemingly comfortable entry into next month's NCAA tournament. The Huskies are now two games out of the league lead with two regular-season games remaining - at home against co-leader UCLA on Thursday and versus USC on Saturday.
Seniors Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday both believe they must win the Pac-10 tournament that begins on March 9 in Los Angeles to make the NCAAs. To them, it's just like last season, when UW assured itself an NCAA bid as an 11th seed by winning the league's tournament.
"I feel like we have to. ... I think we have to go out and win the Pac-10 tournament," Holiday said.
He scored 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting and had five assists while playing through an ankle he turned in the opening minutes.
Isaiah Thomas scored 21 points, but was left dejected with his head down and pulling at his long shorts. Bryan-Amaning had 14 points and 10 rebounds, but was just 3 for 11 from the field. Washington shot 33.8 percent, its lowest field-goal percentage at home all season. It had 16 turnovers, most at Hec Ed this season, with just 13 assists - yet another home low.
That's how UW blew its chance to within a game of first place in the Pac-10.
"We have to play our way in (to the NCAAs), pretty much," Bryan-Amaning said.
He faced Cougar double teams each time he touched the ball and didn't make his first basket until 13:09 remained. Washington was down 14 by then.
Romar is not sure yet how damaging was this home loss was, coming so late in the season, on national television, presumably with NCAA selections committee members having an eye on it - at least those whose eyes were still open across the country late Sunday.
"Depends on how we respond," Romar said.
There is still plenty to respond to. After losing at Arizona at the buzzer last weekend, the Huskies have been eyeing a second-place finish in the league. That would have them opening the Pac-10 tournament on March 10 against the winner of the game between eight and nine seeds from the night before, an obvious advantage. But now to finish second in the league UW must beat the Bruins Thursday, USC on Saturday and hope WSU knocks off UCLA in Pullman Saturday.
Washington State (18-10, 8-8) swept the season series from UW by making 32 of 36 free throws and getting most of the game's loose balls - plays that were as puzzling for the Huskies as they were telling for the final result.
The first half couldn't have gone worse for the Huskies - hadn't in nine years, in fact. They scored 17 points, the worst-scoring first half since Romar arrived in 2002. They missed 28 of their first 36 shots and were 1 for 13 on 3-point shots over WSU's 2-3 zone. They had just three assists and committed nine turnovers in the opening period, after entering with a positive assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 1½:1 for the season.
Yet they trailed by only 24-17 because of defense. Washington held WSU to 32-percent shooting and forced 10 turnovers in the ragged half.
But Washington State's lead grew soon after the break, thanks to a five-point possession. DeAngelo Casto, who finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds, was hit by UW's Aziz N'Diaye on what the Huskies thought was a non-shooting foul. Even the Cougars lined up for an ensuing inbounds play along the baseline. But the officials granted Casto the basket and the foul on an NBA-like continuation call that the pros may not have even gotten. An irate Romar was called for a technical foul for protesting the call as the arena filled with boos. When the smoke cleared WSU led by 17, on a Klay Thompson 3-pointer with 16:24 remaining.
"That was a pivotal, pivotal time in the game, for sure," Romar said.
With the sellout crowd of 10,000 still booing lustily, WSU's lead grew to 21 when Thompson, who finished with 26 points, made a 3-pointer with 10:45 to go.
Then the Huskies' run, which the entire building felt had to be coming, finally arrived.
Desperate, Washington scored 16 points in 2:46 to get WSU's lead down to 65-59, after a steal and free throw by Venoy Overton with 4:06 left. The old building shook, as loud as it has been in years.
Yet the Huskies got no closer. The Cougars, which beat UW 87-80 in Pullman on Jan. 30, scored the next nine points. Seven of those points were at the line, in eight tries.
WSU was a 69-percent team from the line coming in. They shot 89 percent Sunday night amid the raucous, purple noise.
It was yet another puzzling factor on a puzzling night for the Huskies.
Even Romar wearing his once-a-season, Arsenio Hall purple sports coat couldn't change this rarest of Husky nights at Hec Ed.
"There's a difference between wanting something and going out and getting it," Holiday said. "They wanted it and they went out and got it.
"But I think we're going to be OK. We're a team that's been through situations like this. I think we'll be able to answer. ... It will show what kind of team we are, how we respond to this."