It turned out that a careless inbound pass was the difference between a Huskies Sweet 16 berth and elimination from the NCAA tournament.
Put everything else aside for a moment, and consider what happens if Justin Holiday notices there’s a 6-foot-10 defender standing a few inches away on the other side of the baseline. A 6-10 defender, it must be noted, waving his hands above his head.
Even though he’s a senior playing in the 123rd game of his college career, Holiday fails to process any potential for havoc. He tries to loft a pass toward teammate Isaiah Thomas, who’s got enough time – 7.4 seconds – to create a jumper, or dish off to an open man, or drive inside with the idea of getting to the free-throw line.
The Huskies are trailing North Carolina by a point, so any of those options are viable. Thomas will make one of them work. Despite his shooting difficulties Sunday, the season appears destined to come down to Thomas’ ability to execute a basketball play in cold blood.
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And he never gets the chance. The Tar Heels’ John Henson deflects Holiday’s inbound pass, Dexter Strickland picks up the loose ball, and instead of the Huskies walking off the floor as winners, they’re walking to the North Carolina free-throw line to watch Strickland convert a couple of daggers that increase the Tar Heels’ lead to 86-83.
And that’s when an entertaining game played precisely to the Huskies’ liking – they wanted a fast pace, and they got it – devolves into a mess. Watching the final 5.4 seconds is like of one of those grade-school tests challenging the kids to identify all that’s wrong in a picture.
North Carolina is supposed to commit a foul depriving UW of a 3-point shot that can tie the score, but Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams apparently hasn’t emphasized that to his players.
Huskies senior Venoy Overton, wary of being sent to the foul line, flings up a half-court desperation shot that might’ve been less desperate if he uses the final two seconds to find a more tenable launching position.
Alone under the basket, Henson inexplicably touches the ball before it falls out of bounds, giving Washington still another chance with 0.5 seconds on the clock. Replays reveal there ought to be 1.1 or 1.2 seconds on the clock – a critical difference for anybody trying to catch an inbound pass and release a 3-point shot in the same motion.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, who has every right to goad the officiating crew into taking all the time necessary to study the play on the courtside monitor, asks for a replay review and is told there’s already been a review, and that the time is official.
It’s already been reviewed? Really? When Romar is told this, he can be forgiven for throwing a tantrum reminiscent of Bobby Knight – heaving a folding chair onto the court is not an inappropriate response in this situation – but the Huskies bench remains mysteriously docile.
When action resumes, Thomas does what he can in the half-second he’s been allotted, but the only possibility of the shot counting is if Henson is called for goaltending. No matter. Thomas’ foot is on the 3-point line when he lets go of the ball, so even if Henson is charged with goaltending – and he isn’t – it can’t make up the 86-83 deficit.
Here is a list of those accountable for some sort of mistake during the 5.4 seconds between Strickland’s free throws and the buzzer:
Williams, Overton, Henson (twice), the officials, and Romar.
Then again, if Holiday puts the ball in play with 7.4 seconds remaining, there’s no clock gaffe supplying fodder for conspiracy theorists insisting North Carolina enjoys preferred-customer status at the NCAA tournament.
True, the Tar Heels were assigned to what amounts to a home court, and, true, they were given 23 shots at the foul line to the Huskies’ seven. A conspiracy against Washington? Stop it. Please, just don’t go there.
North Carolina earned a trip to nearby Charlotte with its No. 2 seed.
That the Huskies were charged with more fouls than the Tar Heels can be explained by the subconscious dynamics of human nature. Referees and umpires generally favor the home team. A book was published not long ago detailing statistical evidence of this. (“Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played And Games Are Won.”)
And yet, with few supporters in the crowd, with two of every three foul calls going against them, with every intangible advantage owned by their opponent, the Huskies still were only one play away from beating North Carolina in Charlotte.
The season that ended Sunday began with great expectations. Often frustrating and sometimes depressing – Romar has called this the most trying of his 10 teams as Huskies head coach – it included the career-ending medical issues of power forward Tyreese Breshers, the season-ending knee injury of point guard Abdul Gaddy, and the suspension of Overton.
If the final record of 21-11 carries the stigma of underachieving, well, so be it. Most Huskies fans can recall those years when 20-plus victories and an NCAA berth would’ve been regarded as the stuff of legend.
To Romar’s credit, the bar has been raised. A more talented team than the one that advanced to the Sweet 16 last year, against a better field, was sent home because of a clumsy pass.
When the hurdle toward rejoining the Sweet 16 is as simple as that, it’s fair to wonder: Are the Huskies as tantalizingly close greatness as we saw on Sunday, when they almost beat North Carolina in North Carolina?
Or is greatness so far away, so consistently elusive, that a trustworthy senior is unable to inbound the ball from the baseline?