Huskies head into Pac-12 play after escaping with narrow victory

christian.caple@thenewstribune.comDecember 30, 2013 

SEATTLE — This was the kind of frantic, successful finish the Washington Huskies have grown accustomed to achieving at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

That it was required against Hartford, member of the America East Conference and owner now of a 5-9 record, might raise a particular concern.

That is: If this 73-67 victory on Sunday night was the best Washington could manage against a team like Hartford, how will the Huskies fare against Arizona State and star guard Jahii Carson in their Pac-12 opener Thursday?

Or how about two days later, when UW visits top-ranked Arizona and its gaggle of five-star recruits?

Lorenzo Romar prefers to look at the bright side.

“In terms of our focus, it was pretty close to what we want to see,” UW’s coach said of Sunday’s performance. “If we have this same focus and go on the road ... Hartford took the lead, the game was back and forth. We didn’t put our heads down. We stayed the course.

“If we can do that same thing when we go on the road and then make shots on top of it, I feel good about our team.”

It’s true: shot-making was a skill that eluded the Huskies on Sunday, when they shot 44.4 percent from the field, a figure made respectable by a 58.8 percent mark in the second half.

Hartford was far more efficient, making 24 of its 43 field-goal attempts (55.8 percent), and going 9 for 18 from 3-point range.

Mark Nwakamma, the Hawks’ leading scorer, had 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting. Nate Sikma, a Bellevue High graduate and the son of former SuperSonics star Jack Sikma, scored 16 points. And guard Evan Cooper, who made six of his nine shot attempts, finished with 15 points.

In fact, those three players accounted for 24 of the Hawks’ final 30 points, with Cooper’s basket with 2:30 to play giving Hartford a 65-63 lead.

The Huskies (8-5) didn’t panic as they scored the next six points — C.J. Wilcox made a jumper, Nigel Williams-Goss did the same and Andrew Andrews made a pair of free throws — before Cooper made a wild shot to trim UW’s lead to two points.

Out of a timeout, Wilcox caught a pass and headed toward the left side of the rim. He was fouled attempting a layup with 17 seconds to play. He made both free throws,

Hartford missed a shot on its subsequent trip down the floor, and UW avoided what would have been a disastrous loss.

Wilcox was again instrumental in that effort, leading all scorers with 23 points.

Included in that total was a bizarre sequence with 5:01 left in the game and UW leading by a point when Wilcox was fouled by Hartford guard Corban Wroe, who then got in Wilcox’s face and was assessed a technical foul.

Wilcox made both technical free throws, then made the front end of a 1-and-1 (he missed the second) to put UW ahead by four points.

“He was trying to fight, I guess,” Wilcox said of the exchange with Wroe. “I just kind of looked him off. I don’t really know what he was mad about.”

Maybe that was the difference: Hartford found itself with a chance to win a game nobody thought it could, then lost its cool. The Huskies found themselves trailing late to a team they should have beaten easily, but found a way to ensure victory.

That might not be so easy next week.

Trips to ASU (11-2) and Arizona (13-0) could be a rude awakening for a Huskies team that has played two teams currently ranked in the Top 25 (San Diego State and Connecticut) and lost to both.

“I think once we play a couple (conference games), we’ll understand what we need to bring to every game,” Wilcox said, “and that’s when our potential will fill up.”

Perhaps dueling with more talented opponents will allow the Huskies to summon the kind of focus for which Romar praised them Sunday.

“When the odds are against you, you feel like the underdog and you can’t do anything wrong,” said Andrews, who scored 19 points and made 11 free throws.

“So then when you’re kind of like maybe a favorite to win and maybe you’re looking down on a team, or you just don’t think they’re as good as an opponent you’ve played before, you kind of get a little bit lax.”

That much, for the foreseeable future, should not be a problem.

Washington 73, Hartford 67

Player of the game: C.J. Wilcox made big shots down the stretch when the Huskies badly needed them, and the fifth-year senior again led his team in scoring with 23 points. Wilcox was 6-for-12 shooting from the field — including 4 for 8 from 3-point range — and made seven of his eight free throws. He struggled to get open looks early against Hartford’s zone, but his teammates did a better job as the game progressed of getting him the ball with enough space to shoot it.

It was over when: After Wilcox pushed UW’s lead to four points by making a pair of free throws with 17 seconds remaining, Hartford missed a wild shot, UW forward Desmond Simmons rebounded and a Huskies victory was assured.

Stat of the game: Washington attempted 30 free throws and made 26 of them. Hartford attempted only 13 and made 10.

Quotable: “Two things that had been bothering me (but) tonight, I thought we got an A: We maintained our focus for 40 minutes, and we turned the ball over seven times, which is a season low.” – UW coach Lorenzo Romar

What it means: Romar praised the Huskies’ focus, and for a team that has been pretty inconsistent in that department this season, that’s at least noteworthy. But the fact is a six-point victory at home over a team from the America East isn’t going to move the needle a heck of a lot for those who are worried about how this team might fare in Pac-12 play.

Next up: Washington at Arizona State, 5 p.m. Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Ariz. The game will be broadcast by ESPNU.

christian.caple@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports christian.caple@thenewstribune.com

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