UW Loses 1st Chance At Outright Title At UCLA
March 3, 2012
By Gregg Bell
LOS ANGELES - These young, resilient Huskies have lost their chance at the outright conference title.
They haven't lost not their perspective or their focus.
That may ultimately prove more decisive in how far they advance this season.
"We're down," sharpshooter Terrence Ross said after his Huskies scored just two of the game's final 10 points amid a flurry of unforced turnovers and one, huge missed shot to fall 75-69 to UCLA Saturday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
"But we have a lot more to do."
Similarly, Abdul Gaddy was as impressive after this tense championship game as he was during it. He went around to each dejected Husky and encouraged him after a dishing a career-high 12 assists opposite just two turnovers in 36 calming minutes.
Captain Darnell Gant told teammates not to dwell on this disappointment with so much more still at stake this month.
And coach Lorenzo Romar reminded "we've had - by far - worse losses than this. And we've bounced back."
In the meantime, Go Cardinal, eh?
Washington (21-9, 14-4 Pac-12) now needs Stanford to upset California (13-4 in the conference) on The Farm Sunday beginning at 2:30 p.m. PT on Fox Sports Network television to win the league outright. A Cardinal win would also give the Huskies the top seed in the Pac-12 tournament that runs Wednesday through next Saturday at Staples Center here.
A Cal win means the Huskies and Bears are co-champions for the regular season. Cal would get the No.-1 seed in the league tournament because it beat UW in the teams' only meeting this season.
That shared title feels like Rice-a-Roni on a game show right now, the ultimate backstage consolation prize.
"Even if Stanford beats Cal it will feel weird, almost like we don't deserve to win the title," C.J. Wilcox said. "It's a weird feeling, one I've never had before."
Wilcox scored 22 points before Gant pump-faked a pass to a partially covered Ross then missed an open 3-pointer with 13 seconds remaining that would have given Washington the lead. UCLA's Lazeric Jones then made the clinching free throws to deny Washington its second outright regular-season conference title in 58 years.
UCLA scored 19 points off UW's 14 turnovers, many of them unforced. That allowed the Bruins to rally from deficits of nine points midway in the first half and then five points down with 12:50 to go in the tense game befitting the championship stakes.
"We had them beat," Gant said, shaking his head by vowing a quick regroup.
Ross maintained his levity when asked how he might watch Cal at Stanford Sunday.
"I'll watch the second half," the sophomore said. "The first half will take too long for me."
Even with the loss, the Huskies finished tied with the 2004-05 team and the 2008-09 outright league champions for the best conference record in Romar's 10 seasons leading Washington. Their 6-3 road record in the league was Washington's best under Romar.
And those struggles of the non-conference season and the 6-5 record in December? Those seem like eons ago with how much these Huskies have grown.
"A tough way to lose," Romar said two days after his Huskies clinched a share of the league's regular-season championship by winning big at USC.
Then the coach added the perspective that will carry these resilient, young Huskies back down to Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon.
"We've had by far worse losses than this," Romar said. "And we've bounced back."
As for the bigger picture, Saturday's loss leaves more uncertainty than the Huskies prefer concerning a seventh trip to the NCAA tournament in Romar's decade at UW. The mission was to win out to end the regular season, to remove almost all doubt.
"I feel like as (at least) the co-champs of the Pac-12, having won 10 of the last 12 games, that we should be a slam dunk for the NCAA tournament," Romar said. "But we will see. I'm not on the committee."
Ross had 18 points but as one of UW's two top outside shooters was being spied on the right wing by UCLA's Tyler Lamb on the game's decisive possession and the Huskies trailing 71-69. Wilcox was well-covered by the Bruins' spread-out defense on the opposite wing.
The Huskies' plan coming out of a timeout with 35 seconds remaining wasn't necessarily to seek the lead with a 3-pointer, but that became the open shot. Gant got the ball beyond the top of the key and saw Lamb hedging toward Ross on the right wing. He faked a pass to send Lamb closer to Ross, who said Lamb was nearing the passing lane and likely would have stolen a pass his way. Gant then took a shot that looked on line, but it banged short off the front of the rim.
"It felt good," said Gant, who was 1 for 7 shooting but had 10 rebounds while playing for the first time in a historic building three miles from where the senior captain went to high school.
UCLA rebounded Gant's miss and the Huskies had to foul twice before they could get into the Bruins into a bonus free-throws situation. Jones coolly made both ends of a 1-and-1 with 3 seconds left.
Down now by four, the Huskies threw away the ensuing, long inbounds pass to Wilcox into the front court. Travis Wear's subsequent foul shots with 1 second to go ended it.
"It's hard," Gant said. "I hate to see (that UW's fate for conference title) is in someone else's hands."
Ross had no problem with Gant taking what ended up being Washington's final shot. Neither did Romar or Wilcox.
"Not Terrence or me. They weren't going to leave us. Darnell took the right shot," Wilcox said.
Wilcox made nine of 12 shots, a season-high 75 percent from the field. It was the sophomore's best game since he returned in late January from a three-game absence because of a stress fracture in his leg -- and a suggestion his stroke may be back when Washington needs it most.
UCLA (18-13, 11-7) got 20 points from Jones while scoring 10 of the tense game's final 12 points. The Bruins also clamped down on Ross defensively in the second half. The 6-foot-6 sophomore, whose 18 points after halftime last month in Seattle rallied UW from 10 down with 6 minutes to go to beat UCLA, made 5 of 10 shots in the first half Saturday. And he started 3 of 6 from 3-point range.
But a Bruin had a paw in his face throughout the second half. UCLA also cut off backdoor cuts that would have been lob dunks for Ross. He got off just six shots and made two after halftime.
Washington led 47-43 at the end of the wildly entertaining first half, shooting 53 percent. But Romar was concerned at that point that his team was allowing too many open shots, especially in the zone the Huskies went into to deny UCLA's guards entry into the lane. The Bruins were at 55 percent at the break.
Washington guarded more closely in the second half, and UCLA cooled. But passes into enemy arms and hands, travelling while unguarded and other uncharacteristic turnovers by Washington led to easy Bruins scores.
That, not Gant missing the open 3, is why UW lost.
Gant's message as he made his way to his teammates around the quiet visitor's locker room: "Don't dwell on this one."
"I hate to say it, but we are still regular-season champs," said the senior who is the only Husky to ever play for four conference champions, including the last two league tournament titles.
"It's still a testament to where we've come from this season."