BY Art Thiel 06:17PM 03/07/2015

Thiel: Bad season takes a late turn for Huskies

The senior day pre-game introductions, including for Shawn Kemp Jr., were met with a modest gathering. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

It’s fair to wonder what possesses someone to squander a glorious early spring afternoon in Seattle to attend the final game of a Huskies regular basketball season that was the equivalent of an upright piano falling down five flights of stairs.

Just hadda see history.

A team that started out 11-0 would certainly fall to 13th-ranked Utah and finish with losses in 11 of its final 12 games. Dunno what kind of record that is, but it’s at least a two-headed calf — something that must be seen. It was also the worst time in coach Lorenzo Romar’s 13 seasons at Washington, also another thing worth seeing, if only for ghoulish sportswriters.

But the Huskies screwed up the history and all its story lines. Saturday, they played their finest 40 minutes since they were whole, healthy and free of unpleasant aroma.

They out-rebounded the Pac-12′s tallest team 26-23, forced the Utes into 14 turnovers and held Utah’s remarkably agile seven-foot center from Austria, Jakob Poeltl, to a single field goal in the second half after the big freshman went 7-for-7 in the first half.

The decisive final six minutes were minus 21 feet of frontliners (the suspended Robert Upshaw, the injured Shawn Kemp Jr. and the fouled-out Gilles Dierickx, valiant if overmatched again in a 31-minute start at center).

Huskies 77, Utah Utes 68. A three-headed calf.

The win didn’t save the job of Lorenzo Romar — AD Scott Woodward confirmed three weeks ago Romar would carry on, not the least because the coach has five years remaining on his contract, which would cost the athletic department $4.2 million in a lump-sum buyout by April 1.

What it did was restore a measure of dignity for Romar and some confidence among battered players, whose numbers had been decimated to the point where, after five games in a row with a different starting lineup, they began to despair. It appeared as if they were quitting on Romar’s trademark — defense.

Now that a big win was in hand, Romar could concede the obvious.

“If we had a team with four or five pros on it, and one guy is out, you can play through that,” he said. “If your key player is out a long time, it will catch up with you.

“I don’t think we have that much margin for error. When you see a guy go down, then another, then another, then another, it can become deflating. You can talk about being a Superman where nothing affects you, but subconsciously (the number of absent players) can begin to get to you. I felt like toward the end, our guys were mentally drained from (the emotions that followed) being 11-0 and 13th in the country.”

It must be said that even when Upshaw, the nation’s leading shot-blocker, was still on the team, they dropped four in a row. But his Jan. 26 suspension started a cascading impact that cratered the Huskies. At least until Saturday, less than 48 hours after a home splattering from Colorado.

“It was very tough on our guys,” he said. “I was very proud they came back today and generated some energy and focus. Hopefully, we take that into the tournament.”

Yes, the Pac-12 tournament.  The 11th-seeded Huskies (16-14, 5-13) drew sixth-seeded Stanford (18-12, 9-9) in the opening round at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in Las Vegas. The Cardinal beat the Huskies twice, 68-60 in overtime Jan. 4 in Palo Alto, and in Seattle Jan. 28, 84-74.

Saturday morning, the Huskies looked like the easiest one-and-done in tourney history. By mid-afternoon, the Huskies had 28 points from revived Nigel Williams-Goss, three 3-pointers from revived forward Jernard Jarreau (he had two all season) and inspired play throughout the meager roster.

“Today was fun to watch from a coach’s perspective,” said Romar. “We played right for 40 minutes on both ends of the floor.”

Even in a depleted state, the Huskies proved to themselves that they were Pac-12 capable. They may be the only 11th seed in conference history to own wins over three teams in the national top 15 when the matchup was played (San Diego State and Oklahoma, before Utah).

They can’t go far. But they can go up. And perhaps for a second game in Vegas. The skeptics mocked, but on a Saturday afternoon, I saw a three-headed calf.

Notes

Romar said he didn’t know if Kemp’s calf injury will allow him to play in the Pac-12 tourney, saying the healing hadn’t progressed as fast as they hoped. Reserve guard Donaven Dorsey (turf toe), who sat out Saturday, likely will be available . . . The Utes entered the regular season finale as one of two teams nationally not to allow an opponent to score more than 72 points . . . The official crowd count was 7,386, but the attendee count was barely half that for senior day, when Kemp and Mike Anderson (15 points, four rebounds with his mother and daughter in house) were saluted.


YourThoughts

  • jafabian

    I wonder if Desmond Simmons follows the team? He’s getting the playing time he wanted at St. Mary’s, if not the opportunities. Things might have been a bit different for the team and him had he chosen to stay at UW. Could say the same for Tristan Estienne. Throw in the dismissal of Upshaw and the missed time of Jarreau due to injury and it’s not a big surprise that the team has had the season it did though there’s been several games, pre and post Upshaw’s dismissal that the team could have won.

    They’re losing only two players to grad though they’re both starters. One is their best rebounder with Anderson (not good when it’s a guard) and the other their best inside scoring presence in Kemp. But with a nationally ranked recruiting class coming in and only 3 seniors next season hopefully the program will take a swing on the upside now.

    • Art Thiel

      Attrition by various means brought about much of the debacle, but many if not most programs lose players for various reasons. Romar passes on some players others might take, and can’t get multiple difference makers at once.

  • Joe Fan

    I’m tired of Romar’s excuses. This has been HIS team for years. Its up to Romar to recruit and maintain the depth for the team to carry on in the face of whatever circumstances they encounter. Romar is an “excuse machine” and I’m tired of hearing it. The fact that on paper he has a good recruiting class coming in next year means nothing to me. Who knows if those players will pan out and how quickly. Plus, Romar has shown a poor ability to develop and keep key players in the program. Good, established coaches/recruiters don’t miss the tournament for 4 years running.

    • Art Thiel

      It is rare to have such a slump and keep the job in today’s field. But Romar is a rare dude — on the upside. And I’ve never heard Romar make excuses, although his defenders have. Oddly enough, some of those excuses are actual reasons.

      Boeheim is just the latest example of how top-shelf programs get it done.

  • Soggyblogger

    This ain’t Kentucky. We’re gonna have some bad recruiting classes and Romar has to maintain his integrity. I have no problem with a few down years. Next year he needs to make use of the young recruits and make some noise.

    The Huskies have never had a better program than under Romar. Marv Harshman was competitive with just about everyone but John Wooden, but that was his cross to bear. Romar’s cross is at Arizona.

    Plus injuries and I give Romar a pass for another year or two.

    • Art Thiel

      You’re right. Romar has the best record, fattened a bit by the soft conference schdule. But all schools do that. He definitely needs to make something happen with the incoming class.