Ahead 36-30 Thursday night with three minutes left in the first half, the Washington Huskies weren’t playing well, but guards C.J. Wilcox and Andrew Andrews were hitting enough jumpers against Cal-Irvine’s 2-3 zone defense to make it seem the Huskies were in control.
Then it all came undone.
The Anteaters of the Big West Conference had an 8-0 burst to take a 38-36 halftime lead. When UC Irvine screamed out in the second half, the run stretched to 27-3. They set the accelerator to cruise control for an 86-72 win at Alaska Airlines Arena in the first round of the 2K Sports Classic.
For the second consecutive game, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar mostly employed his four-guard lineup. It was no match for UC Irvine center Mamadou Ndiaye. A seven-foot-six, broad-shouldered freshman, Ndiaye made his presence felt on both ends, finishing with 18 points, eight rebounds and nine blocks.
Despite allowing 53 percent shooting (16 of 30) in the first half, the Huskies kept it close, but eventually wilted against UC Irvine’s 2-3 zone defense.
Facing Ndiaye, college basketball’s tallest player, the Huskies (1-1) were without forward Jernard Jarreau (torn ACL) and Desmond Simmons (knee surgery). They had no answer when the big man from Senegal started scoring.
Near the end of the first half, UC Irvine guard Luke Nelson threw a high lob pass into the key. Ndiaye simply turned and laid it in, barely needing to jump despite the defense of seven-foot UW center Gilles Dierickx, who weakly tried to swat away Ndiaye’s attempt. Instead he picked up an “and-one” foul in what began the Huskies’ descent.
The Anteaters repeated the formula several times in what proved a match-up nightmare. UC Irvine was bigger and more physical and shot 59.6 percent from the field (34 of 57).
The meager 5,875 fans who attended sat silently for most of the night, the Huskies failing to cut the deficit to single digits after UC Irvine’s big run. The Huskies trimmed it to 70-57 with 7:58 left, but the combination of Ndiaye and Will Davis II (22 points, seven rebounds) put it away.
In the first half, the space behind the arc belonged to Wilcox. He had 24 points, including four threes, four rebounds and two assists. However, his efficiency dwindled in the second half when the Anteaters switched to a box-and-one defense that sometimes had two defenders on him.
Anytime Wilcox, or any UW frontcourt player drove into the lane, Ndiaye was there to greet them at the rim, hands extended. The Huskies shot 37.5 percent (24 of 64) from the field and knocked down only 18 of 29 from the free-throw line (62.1 percent).
Their bright spot was freshman Nigel Williams-Goss. The McDonald’s All-America selection quietly scored 13 points, dished five assists, and garnered three steals.
The UW will try to bounce back in the second round of the 2K Classic when Eastern Washington comes to Alaska Airlines Arena Sunday.