March 20, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Isaiah Thomas was staring up at the cement underside of an arena filled with thousands roaring in Carolina blue. Senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning was crying. Terrence Ross was sitting, looking stunned.
Coach Lorenzo Romar then walked in front of the Huskies inside the deathly silent and cramped locker room.
"By the end of the year, you became a very good basketball team. Hold your heads high," Romar told his players after the resilient, gallant Huskies came up three points and one play short of a monumental win. "Unless you win your last game, you are really going to be extremely disappointed. "It hurts."
Just minutes after their Washington's thrill ride of a season seemed to have peaked, it ended, doomed by the tip of a Tar Heels' hand.
"We played well enough most of the day to win," Romar said later. He was alone in a tunnel with his wife Leona watching the Duke-Michigan second game here before the team bus left for a silent, six-hour flight back to Seattle. "We just didn't do enough to win down the stretch. ... We had opportunities."
Ross, a freshman oblivious to the tense surroundings on this raucous day, scored 19 points. Bryan-Amaning had 14 with eight rebounds in his final game. And Thomas had 12 points and eight assists despite 5-for-15 shooting for the Huskies (24-11).
Their pain was intensified by losing an 11-point lead after a rollicking start and then a five-point lead with 7 minutes to go. And just when they were recovering during their seemingly endless, 5½-hour flight home Sunday night, the Huskies found out 11th-seeded Marquette upset third-seeded Syracuse. Marquette, which UW beat in the NCAAs last spring, would have been the Dawgs' next opponent in the Sweet 16.
A couple Husky heads shook on the plane when they found out that result.
"We fought hard. We had our chances. It's on us," Thomas said after UW's up-and-down season ended the way they do for all but the national champions: Suddenly, with heartbreak.
"I'm a winner. I hate losing. I don't even know what the seniors are going through right now. This was their last game."
Holiday sat quietly on a folding chair. Yet his posture was impressively upright and his head was level as he described the Huskies' final, best chance that went awry on his inbounds pass.
"He just went up and got the ball," Holiday said of Henson, who said he read Holiday's eyes before leaping to bat the Husky's attempted pass to Thomas on the game's biggest sequence: The inbounds pass under Washington's own basket with 5.7 seconds remaining and UNC leading 84-83. "I should have done something different. That didn't happen.
"All I can think about now is I hate how it ended. I had fun. I really enjoyed my teammates in my four years here. I just would have liked it to end better than it did."
The drama Dawgs, who won last weekend's Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles on Thomas' last-second swish, just ran out of buzzer-beating shots while being denied a second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.
We played well enough most of the day to win. We just didn't do enough to win down the stretch. ... We had opportunities."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar
"I've been watching basketball for a long time. I thought they were going to foul," Overton said. "I misjudged his reach. ... Game over."
Not quite. The wildly bouncing ball went out of bounds off UNC, giving Washington a final inbounds play with 0.5 seconds left and the Huskies still down 86-83. But by then UW was out of timeouts and could not set up a screen or set play. Thomas took the inbounds pass in the corner and rushed a fade-away jumper from a step inside the 3-point arc. It was short off the front of the rim and would have counted for only two anyway, making moot an issue as to whether the Tar Heels touched the ball at the rim for goaltending.
Tyler Zeller had 23 points and Harrison Barnes had 22 for North Carolina (28-7), which goes to the Sweet 16 Friday in Newark N.J. The Tar Heels, who never led by more than 2 until the final minutes, will play Marquette.
Washington led by 1 at the half, and the second half was crazy good. Each shot was contested, each rebound scrapped for with the season on the line. The standoff remained with 7:27 left, tied at 69, when Thomas checked back in. He was 4-12 from the field at that point.
But Thomas turned it over, the second of two consecutive UW turnovers, and Barnes hit a 3 to put North Carolina ahead 78-76 with 4:07 remaining. The arena erupted in Carolina-blue cheers over what equaled the Tar Heels' biggest lead to that point. UNC's lead grew to six with 1:59 left, but then UW's Scott Suggs hit a clutch 3-pointer to cut Carolina's lead to 84-83 with 17.3 left and set up the frantic and painful finish.
The Huskies went on an 11-0 run in the first half behind a 3-point barrage from Ross, Darnell Gant and Overton. Overton's layup and conventional 3-point play had Washington ahead 26-15 early.
The inevitable Carolina response happened soon after. Alarmingly, the Tar Heels grabbed four loose balls that the Huskies were late getting to, and a 19-7 run had UNC back in front.
Yet the Huskies withstood that, the roaring Carolina crowd, the 11-2 disparity in fouls and Thomas scoring just four points on 2-for-8 shooting during the contentious first half to take a 45-44 lead into the break.
Romar started 7-foot center Aziz N'Diaye and 6-6 guard Scott Suggs to combat Carolina's huge front line of 7-footer Zeller, Henson and 6-8 Barnes. N'Diaye was great, finishing with 11 rebounds and stellar defense inside.
N'Diaye was making his first start since the regular-season finale two weeks ago. Suggs finished with eight points in his first start since Feb. 17.
"He sure earned his scholarship today," Romar said of N'Diaye, smiling over the prospect of having the towering sophomore for two more seasons.
Twenty-five minutes after it was over, North Carolina coach Roy Williams saw his good friend in a hallway outside the locker rooms. He gave Romar a hug.
"I loved how you played the whole year," Williams graciously told Romar.
Romar smiled and thanked Williams, and wished him and his Tar Heels luck in the rest of the tournament.
It's a tournament the Huskies feel they should still be in, a tournament they let slip away.
"It's been a lot of ups and downs in four years, a lot adversity," said Bryan-Amaning, who will now explore his professional basketball options and look forward to playing for his native Great Britain in the 2012 London Olympics. "Obviously, making three consecutive NCAA tournaments with my teammates was a lot of fun.
"It's just hard to go out like this."