March 3, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - His Huskies teammates call C.J. Wilcox "Lak-e" (from their Swahili class) and "Smooky" (don't ask).
After Thursday night, coach Lorenzo Romar calls him one of the most clutch performers this storied program has ever had.
Playing in front of his grandparents for the first time as a Husky, with his parents also in from Utah celebrating the second birthday of Wilcox's little brother in the stands, the redshirt freshman rescued the Huskies by scoring 24 points - all in the second half. That single-handedly rallied the otherwise bricklaying Huskies to a tense, 70-63 victory over UCLA at roaring Alaska Airlines Arena.
"That's a performance I'll never forget," Romar said. "To me, that's not just a freshman, but one of the greatest performances in the history of the program."
That only covers, oh, 109 seasons, back to 1896.
"You go back and look and how many players here at this school have scored 24 points in a half when it wasn't a 50-point blowout, but a meaningful game like this." Romar said. "I don't think there would be many."
Wilcox saved more than UW's bacon. His 7-for-8 shooting in the second half likely saved a place for Washington (20-9, 11-6 Pac-10) in the NCAA tournament -- or at least solidified the Huskies' previously precarious place in it.
Washington trailed 53-49 with 5:55 left before Wilcox scored seven points during a decisive, 14-0 run, after the first 34 minutes had looked like a redux of UW's brutal home loss to Washington State Sunday night.
Wilcox moved the Huskies within one game of the Bruins for second place in the Pac-10, with one regular-season game remaining: At home against USC (17-13, 9-8) on Saturday night. The Trojans lost at Washington State Thursday.
UCLA (21-9, 12-5) lost for just the second time in 19 games when leading at halftime. Arizona, which beat Oregon State, is now back alone at 13-4 in the conference and has clinched at least a tie for the regular-season title. The Bruins play at WSU (19-10, 9-8) in their regular-season finale Saturday night.
A UW win and UCLA loss Saturday would give the Huskies the second seed at next week's Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles.
As quickly as you can say "Wilcox for 3!", UW's NCAA tournament chances look a whole lot better.
How much did the Dawgs need Wilcox? Their three leading Huskies scorers - Isaiah Thomas, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday combined to shoot 7 for 34. Venoy Overton was the only Husky other than Wilcox in double figures. The senior scored 10.
Take out Wilcox's 7-for-10 night, and the rest of the team shot 15 for 51 (29.4 percent).
"I knew he was hot," said Holiday, who had a game-high five assists by feeding Thursday's beast. "I was like, 'OK, we have a scoring option to go to now.'"
The state high school scoring leader in Pleasant Grove, Utah, as a junior, said he couldn't think of a time he'd ever scored 24 points in a half.
And sometimes, he didn't even look.
"I was just shooting blindly," he said, after he bettered his previous career high by four points. "They were closing out on me so fast, I couldn't see.
"As soon as the ball goes in, it feels like you can make 10 in a row."
And get this: In practice Wednesday, Romar made Wilcox run lines for not shooting. Seems Wilcox took Romar's demands after the WSU game that the Huskies be more selective too much to heart in drills.
Romar has so much faith in Wilcox after watching him scorch fellow Huskies in practices the last two seasons -- and after he had 19 points in a equally tense, raucous environment at Arizona two weeks ago - the coach never wants Wilcox to pass up looks. From anywhere. Whether open or not.
"The guy that is hitting, if you don't shoot, you are just as bad as the others," Romar reasoned.
Wilcox did what no other Husky could do coming out of halftime - make a shot. He made four of his first five tries - two from 3-point range, in the first 7:03 of the second half. His second triple gave Washington its largest lead to that point, 36-31, with 12:57 left.
But then the Bruins pounded UW on the offensive glass to erase the deficit. A 3-pointer from Jerime Anderson put UCLA back up 45-44 with 8 minutes left and set up the taut finish.
Wilcox's sixth make in seven tries - again from 3 - sparked the game-saving run. Then the 5-foot-9 Thomas put back his own miss with a tip in among the tall trees with 3:35 remaining. Those were his first points of the game after nine misses, and Washington led 56-53.
The arena was rockin', but UCLA coach Ben Howland had already used all five of his time outs by early in the half. So the Bruins held on for the under-4 media timeout.
No matter. Wilcox kept rolling after that.
With the shot clock expiring, Romar called a play "on the fly," Wilcox said. He took the ball out high, stepped left and swished a long jumper while getting hit by UCLA's Anderson and falling. He was sprawled across the floor as the shot went through. The ensuing, old-fashioned 3-point play and Thomas' layin off a steal by Holiday had UW up 61-53 with 1:42 remaining.
The old roof to this place somehow stayed on.
"Talent took over," Romar said of the signature play on Wilcox's night for the ages.
It wasn't always so loud Thursday.
Days after they scored a season-low 17 points in the first half Sunday night in the home loss to Washington State, the Huskies grinded out 24 points on 21-percent shooting in the opening period. Thomas was 0 for 6 from the field, as he again kept missing off the front rim - even on his free throws. Bryan-Amaning was just 2 for 8 in the half.
Washington is 15 for 69 (21%) in the first halves of the last two games - on rims they practice on all the time.
Yet because of terrific help defense inside, the Huskies trailed only 25-24 at the break.
And this time - unlike against Washington State Sunday when they allowed 56 points in the second half to seal the loss - the Huskies maintained their defensive intensity. Overton looked like the Overton of before, jumping out on Anderson 40 feet from the basket and pestering and jabbering at him all night.
"Our guys," Romar said, "they dug in and just played with so much heart."
*UW won for the seventh consecutive time at home against UCLA in Seattle, including last season's 29-point win at Hec Edmundson Pavilion that was the largest Huskies win in the 129-game series that began in 1937.
*The Huskies swept the Pac-10 regular-season series from the Bruins for only the third time ever, after 1987 and 2006.
*Scott Suggs had four points, three assists, two steals and a block in 18 minutes in his first game since he sprained his knee early in Feb. 17's win at Arizona State. Romar lauded the junior, who had been starting until the injury, for his steadying influence in his return.