Lorenzo Romar this season has preached, to varying degrees of effectiveness, the need for his players to maintain focus for an entire game. The Washington coach finally saw them do it Sunday at Alaska Airlines Arena, as the Huskies (8-5) squeaked by Hartford, 73-67, before an announced crowd of 6,617 fans.
For the second game in a row, the Huskies allowed an opponent with a bad record, inferior athleticism and a low RPI to keep it close deep into the second half. For the second game in a row, the Huskies emerged winners despite an underwhelming defensive effort. Hartford scorched UW with 55.8 percent shooting, 65.2 percent in the second half.
For the first time, Romar had no qualms with his Huskies after their final tune-up before the start of a daunting Pac-12 schedule that begins Thursday at Arizona State (5 p.m. ESPNU).
“You may look at the score and see that it was six-point win at home against a team that wasn’t nationally ranked or high-profile, and say that we were just OK. I would say I was really proud of our guys,” Romar said. “They stayed focused the entire game. That’s what we’ve been looking for. That’s escaped us.”
Hartford (5-9), with an RPI of 293 (out of 351 teams), almost escaped Seattle with a win. In a game that featured 18 lead changes and 11 ties, the Hawks of the American East Conference led 65-63 with 2:32 left after guard Evan Cooper converted a layup on an assist from forward Nate Sikma (Bellevue), son of former Sonics All-Star Jack Sikma. The latter’s small collection of supporters were seated a few rows up at halfcourt, making as much as noise as UW’s Dawg Pack section, most of which were gone for Christmas break.
C.J. Wilcox tied it at 65 by draining a 15-foot jumper. Sikma, who finished with 16 points and five rebounds, missed a step-back shot from the top of the key, then Nigel Williams-Goss (11 points, five assists, one turnover) gave the Huskies a lead by making a pull-up jumper from just inside the arc with 1:21 left.
After Andrew Andrews made a pair of free throws, Hartford cut it to two with a Cooper drive. Rather than extend the game, the Hawks let UW run the clock down to 20 seconds (about 10 remained on the shot clock) when Romar called a timeout. The sideline inbounds play isolated Wilcox near the free-throw line, and UW’s leading scorer capped his 23-point performance by driving to his left off a pick from Perris Blackwell, then drawing a foul. Wilcox guided in both free throws to make it a two-possession game, effectively sealing the outcome.
The Huskies, who entered fourth in the country in free-throw percentage (76.5 percent), made 26 of 30 attempts from the line. They needed every make.
In the first half, the Hawks shot 45 percent (nine of 20) while UW converted 36 percent (10 of 28). Afterward, Romar credited Hartford for playing a zone that worked well against his sets, and Andrews directed praise to the visitors for knocking in six of 13 threes in the first half.
“I have no clue,” Andrews (19 points, five rebounds) said when asked how Hartford exploited UW’s defense. “I think they got a couple in transition. A couple, our hand was in their face. They just knocked them down. (It was) a little bit of a negligence on our part. Some were just good shots.”
Given the chance to improve a 31-29 lead with about 25 seconds left before intermission, Andrews and Williams-Goss made a couple of passes on the perimeter. Nobody cut across the lane or dove to the basket. Andrews settled for a contested, flat-footed three from near the scorer’s table that clanked off the back rim, a fitting end to UW’s foundering first half.
Were the first 20 minutes a preview of the Huskies’ future, if they don’t improve quickly before the competition improves?
Wilcox wasn’t buying it.
“We still have room to learn,” he said. “Guys haven’t been here . . . (Pac-12) will be a really good learning curve. I think once we play a couple, we’ll understand what we need to bring to every game, and that’s when our potential will fill up.”