For a few minutes Saturday afternoon – four minutes and 28 seconds, to be exact – the Washington Huskies played basketball with the skill of a team that is not ready to concede the season as a lost cause.
At the beginning of the second half, the Huskies combined a lock-down defense with an amped-up offense to go on a 15-0 run against USC. The rest of the game was a bit of a snore.
The Trojans brought a 2-15 conference record into Hec Edmundson Pavilion, and somehow kept the issue in doubt – but you couldn’t watch that brief floor show without wondering if the Huskies, who begin the Pac-12 Conference tournament on Wednesday, might make some magic in Las Vegas.
Said guard C.J. Wilcox: “The guys are confident we can get four in a row.”
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The guys are confident? Seriously?
The guys haven’t won four in a row all season, nor have they played four times in four days. Their only back-to-back games this season were at the 2K Sports Classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where an 11-point defeat to Boston College followed a thorough drubbing at the hands of Indiana.
When Wilcox talks about the confidence his team has while it prepares for four games in four days, it sounds more like a prayer than a pronouncement.
And yet …
Every once in a while, the Huskies wipe the sleep out of their eyes, crouch down in the no-nonsense posture of defenders with a purpose, and click in a way that suggests anything is possible. The energy during the 15-0 spurt to open the second half was palpable.
Freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss delivered a pair of dazzling passes to Shawn Kemp Jr., setting up the sophomore forward for a layup and then a dunk. Wilcox had a layup and buried a 3-pointer, part of a comprehensively impressive farewell performance on senior day.
But it all began on defense.
“The first five or six minutes of the second half, we ran half-court one time,” said Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. “We were getting deflections and steals and they were taking shots maybe they didn’t want to, and we were off to the races.”
After the 82-75 victory, which had no effect on seeding for the conference tournament, I asked Romar what his reasonable expectations were for the Huskies in Las Vegas.
“Is that a trick question?” he asked, “because my answer would be we expect to win it all.”
He paused, then pondered the key word.
“Realistically? If we go out and are not distracted on the defensive end, and we’re sharing the ball, I don’t think we have to do anything supernatural,” Romar continued. “If we play up to our capabilities, which we have at times, we have a chance. If we don’t, we’ll get beaten.”
Romar, a former assistant at UCLA, has long been a disciple of the philosophy of the late Bruins coach John Wooden. So is Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whose don’t-worry-about-the-opponent, don’t-worry-about-anything-or-anybody-except-what-you-do lectures were heard daily by the Super Bowl champions.
The challenge of winning four games this week – or winning even once before having to face No. 1 seed Arizona on Thursday – will require the Huskies to achieve the potential they showed early in the second half Saturday.
If the defense forces turnovers and the ball is shared in transition, miracles won’t be necessary. Gaining an automatic NCAA tournament berth despite a mediocre regular-season record of 17-14 would be recalled as a miracle, perhaps, but the task of surprising the college basketball world is in their hands.
“We don’t have to shoot 70 percent from the field every game,” said Romar. “And we don’t have to have all kinds of bad things to happen to the other team.”
The march to the madness phase of the schedule has been a long and frustrating trek for the Huskies, whose hopes at competing for a regular-season conference title unraveled when 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore forward Jernard Jarreau was sidelined with a knee injury after one start.
If they go one-and-done in Las Vegas, fans will shrug their shoulders and think: appropriate. The season went into the clunker early, and pretty much remained in the clunker.
But there’s no drawback to dreaming, and envisioning the early second-half effort on Saturday expanded by an effort necessary to win four games in four days.
Supernatural intervention won’t be needed. Natural will work just fine, as long as the natural is as super as it was for a few minutes against USC.