LAS VEGAS – As with most visitors to this gambling mecca, the Washington Huskies left town as losers. It remains to be seen if their next opportunity to be winners comes next week or next season.
The Huskies find themselves begging for a shot at the NIT – the ugly stepchild of college basketball – after wasting big-time second-half performances by freshmen Nigel Williams-Goss and Darin Johnson in a 67-61 loss to Utah on Wednesday afternoon at the Pac-12 Tournament.
“I want to continue to play,” Johnson said. “Especially, I want the seniors to continue. I don’t want them to go out like this.”
“This” was a first-round loss that saw the Huskies recover from a dismal first half to briefly hold small leads in the second half. Washington’s Desmond Simmons tied the game at 60 with a free throw with barely a minute left, but Simmons missed a second freebie, and the Dawgs were done in by Kakarai Tucker’s 3-pointer at the other end with 37.3 seconds to go.
The Huskies spent almost 20 seconds working against a tenacious Utes defense to try to set up leading scorer C.J. Wilcox for a tying 3-pointer. Finally, Williams-Goss launched a trey over Brandon Taylor from the top of the arc. The ball bounced harmlessly off the front rim, and the Utes finished matters at the free-throw line.
The Huskies, who tied Utah for eighth place in the Pac-12 at 9-9, are 17-15 overall. Asked if he’s certain his team will earn a post-season invitation, coach Lorenzo Romar quickly replied, “No.”
Romar said his team hopes to play in the NIT. He refused to answer when asked if the Huskies would accept an invitation from the less prestigious College Basketball Invitational. (A fourth national tourney, the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, is designed for mid-major schools.)
The Huskies have missed out on the NCAA tournament three years in a row. That’s a first for Romar during a 12-year run at his alma mater, but the coach and Washington’s fans — some of whom have turned up the heat on Romar this season – should be encouraged after watching a potentially bright future unfold before their eyes when Williams-Goss and Johnson did their thing.
Williams-Goss, a McDonald’s All-America pick last season at his suburban Las Vegas high school, scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half. He also keyed an inspired defensive effort after halftime with three steals.
“He stepped it up more aggressively in the second half,” Johnson said. “He pushed the ball. That’s something we needed that we lacked in the first half.”
The Huskies also lacked energy and a shooting touch in the first half. Washington’s 26.9 percent shooting and 24 points in the opening half were the team’s second-worst marks of the season.
“We were missing a lot of easy shots,” Wilcox said. “I think that got in our heads a little bit and affected us on the other end.”
Down 10 at the half, the Huskies roared back, outscoring Utah 10-1 over seven minutes to take a 41-40 lead on a Johnson basket with 11½ minutes to go. Johnson finished with a game-high 16 points, tying the season high he set in the season opener Nov. 10 against Seattle.
“A freshman getting out there on the biggest stage and playing like that, good for him,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox was not as fortunate. The senior sank just 4 of 15 shots (2 of 8 treys) and scored 14 points, none of which came in the final 10 minutes.
Sophomore guard Andrew Andrews, Washington’s third-leading scorer, had two points in 24 minutes. The night before, Andrews came down with food poisoning – he suspects the cheese on some of the restaurant food the Huskies ate at the home of Williams-Goss’s parents – and he vomited periodically all night and into the morning. He received an IV about half an hour before the game.
“I thought about sitting out,” Andrews said. “Once I got the IV, I started feeling a little better.”
The ninth-seeded Huskies cited improved defense as the key to the second-half rally against the eighth-seeded Utes (21-10). Utah, fifth in the nation at the start of the day with 49.7 percent field-goal shooting, was held to 44.9 percent before 8,734 spectators at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
“I’m proud of my teammates,” said Simmons, who produced 10 points and nine rebounds. “We fought until the end, so I’m not going to hold my head down.”
Utah takes on fourth-ranked and top-seeded Arizona (28-3) in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The Huskies, meanwhile, must wait until Sunday night to learn if their season remains alive.