|Minnesota 68, Washington 67|
March 27, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
NEW YORK - Terrence Ross crouched in the middle of the floor and grabbed his bowed head. He was staring straight down seemingly in disbelief that his wondrous sophomore season and particularly sterling March were ending one minute before midnight in Manhattan.
Senior captain Darnell Gant punched the air in a hallway beneath Madison Square Garden and muttered "Dang!"
C.J. Wilcox nailed the story of Washington's loss in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament Tuesday night - and of this entire, at-times inexplicable season for the Pac-12's regular-season champions.
"Defense. It's always about defense," Wilcox said.
"I don't know why we never bought in."
Wilcox also grabbed the steal and nailed the basket with 15 seconds left in regulation that sent his frantic Huskies all the way back from 15 points down and improbably into overtime against Minnesota. What he didn't nail was the tying 3-pointer with 7 seconds left in overtime. That bounded high off the left side of the rim.
Then Abdul Gaddy's final, desperate heave from beyond halfcourt was off to the left, ending Washington's largely self-inflicted, 68-67 loss to Minnesota in the NIT semifinals.
"It was kind of hard. It was far. I was looking for a prayer, yeah," Gaddy said of the final shot.
With former Washington and current NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert sitting to the immediate left of the Huskies' bench, Ross was great again. He scored 21 points despite everyone in New York except perhaps Lady Gaga knowing he was the focal point of the Dawgs' offense. Yet again.
"Like so many times this year ... he carried us," Romar said. "Terrence played his heart out tonight."
But Ross could never rally his team into any lead in what may prove to be his final game at Washington (24-11), as the Huskies fell one game short of a chance for the first national championship of any kind in 110 seasons of men's basketball.
The dynamic, 6-foot-6 sophomore, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection and the Huskies' scoring leader this season at 16.4 points per game, has until April 11 to declare if he wants to enter the NBA draft. He softly said he will talk to his mother from the Portland, Ore., area, Marcine Ross, plus Romar and others before he makes his decision.
Wilcox had 12 points for Washington in its exit from college basketball's oldest tournament. It came two-plus weeks after the NCAA selection committee made Washington the only major conference champion ever excluded from its big dance.
Inexperience, another in series of slow starts to games, and a lack of consistent resolve on defense caught up to UW against the Golden Gophers - just as they did when the Huskies fell behind big early then fell short to begin their Pac-12 tournament March 8 in Los Angeles.
"A lot of times we just seemed like a step off, a little bit like when we played against Oregon State in the Pac-12 opening game," Romar said.
"We just didn't bring it."
Minnesota (23-14) advanced to the championship game of this 75th NIT against Stanford. The Huskies' Pac-12 rivals beat Massachusetts in Tuesday night's earlier semifinal.
Minnesota raced to a 15-point lead late in the first half, thanks to a snoozing beginning on defense by the Huskies. Romar resorted to playing zone, because so many Gophers were getting free on dribble drives, on backdoor cuts and for offensive rebounds against Washington's flat-footed man-to-man.
That's the reason UW went zone so much more this season. It wasn't because these Huskies were particularly good at it, but because the man defense was so deficient Romar was often forced to try somethingelse.
The key was getting stops - the thing that's been biting us all year.
"The key was getting stops - the thing that's been biting us all year," Gaddy said, speaking of both the second-half rally and the first-half woes Tuesday. "We can't have these lapses. It caught up to us tonight."
Yet sheer desire - especially on defense - plus Ross' scoring 10 of Washington's 16 points at one stretch of the second half led a rousing Washington rally. It had the "World's Most Famous Arena" roaring with "GO! HUSKIES!" chants, and Emmert fighting to keep his neutrality as the NCAA's chief on press row.
An 11-point Minnesota lead with 8 minutes left got down to two when Ross hit a 3-pointer with 56 seconds remaining in regulation. With venerable, remodeled Garden buzzing Wilcox got his steal in the backcourt and hit the short floater in the lane that tied it at 61 with 15 seconds to go. Minnesota's Andre Hollins then missed a 17-footer before UW's Tony Wroten banged a 3-pointer from NBA range off the glass and just off the side of the rim at the regulation buzzer.
The Huskies sprinted to their bench and roared throughout the break before the extra period, sensing an improbable win.
But Washington went cold to start overtime. The Huskies were scoreless for the first 3:19 of it until Gaddy scored the first of his consecutive layups. The second one made it 66-65 with 1:05 to go. Andre Hollins answered and put Minnesota back up by 3 in the lane.
Romar called his final timeout with 23.5 seconds remaining and set up a play with Ross and Wilcox as the options for outside shots off screens. The ball came to Wilcox on the left wing. His shot was on line but short. Gant got the offensive rebound and scored to make it 68-67 with 5 seconds to go.
Minnesota's Julian Welch missed both of his ensuing free throws, but only 3.5 seconds remained. That was barely enough time for Gaddy to get near halfcourt and launch his desperate but well off-line heave.
The Huskies were left wishing they had played the first 20 minutes like most of the last 25, especially on defense.
"It's our mentality sometimes. We are not able to dial in," Gaddy said. "We had a senior leader (Gant) who kept telling us, `Get going! We're blowing it!'
"It's hard," Gaddy send of this wholly unsatisfying ending.
The Huskies' mission for this offseason, which will include a summer exhibition tour still to be announced: Get tougher and more mature defensively, to return the hallmark of Romar's 10 seasons leading UW.
Through the sudden end, Gant showed the class and leadership that helped him grow from an overlooked recruit out of Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School then a redshirt as a freshman into the only Husky ever to win four conference championships.
"Hey, man, good game y'all," Gant said, passing some Minnesota players who were outside its locker room as Gant made his way to a postgame press conference.
"Go take care of business on Thursday."
Gant had 12 points in nine rebounds in his final game of a brilliant five years at UW.
"On to the next chapter," the owner of a drama degree said, meaning of life. "It's a marathon."