Dave Boling: Sleepwalking Huskies need mental toughness wake-up call

The crowd seemed subdued at the start, perhaps because those who usually populate the “Dawg Pack” student section at Washington games were put off by a Saturday tipoff scheduled for the crack of noon.

But that hardly explains why the UW men’s basketball team, after a terrific start, repeatedly fell asleep for long stretches, blowing a nice lead and then failing to capitalize on a couple of rallies in a 72-59 loss to California.

The sleepwalking was particularly prevalent on defense as the Huskies watched a 27-15 lead turn into a 34-29 halftime deficit.

How could they let this happen? They had played well in Wednesday’s win over Stanford. They were undefeated in five Pac-12 Conference home games.

And with their final six games — four against teams below them in the conference standings — they still had a chance to make a late statement and at least improve Pac-12 tournament positioning.

But at the critical point, the Huskies lost track of where they were and, according to coach Lorenzo Romar, started playing the way they played on the road.

Which is to say, inconsistent and short on confidence, leadership and poise.

But what causes that, coach?

“We just have to be mentally tougher,” Romar said. “We have to be able to will ourselves in the other direction. When we see the ball not going into the basket, we still need to defend. We still need to guard. We still need to do the things we were doing before.”

The intense, disciplined play that got them the early lead against Cal was abandoned, and “we haven’t been able to shift gears mentally to do the things at that point we know we’re capable of,” Romar said.

Some of it, surely, is youth.

With nine points in the first five minutes, freshman guard Nigel Williams-Goss looked every bit the McDonald’s All-American he was in high school.

But he finished with six turnovers and made one of his next 10 shots.

Senior guard C.J. Wilcox’s 17.6-point season average made him the second-leading scorer in the conference — and a target of the Golden Bears’ defense.

Early on, Wilcox had to slalom through screens to try to get off shots, and he made just 1 of 3 in the first half.

When pushed to be more assertive in the second half, Wilcox occasionally drove hard to the basket for big buckets. Too little, too late. He added four blocked shots and five assists, but in the face of Cal’s pressure, he finished with eight points.

This is the kind of game when a team’s senior stud needs to grab control. The Bears kept him from it.

It was sophomore Andrew Andrews who best filled that role, scrapping for eight rebounds and leading the team with 21 points.

The Huskies (14-12 overall) still have not won more than two consecutive games this season. There’s been the sense they’ve been fighting to stay afloat since losing their interior presence, 6-foot-10 flier Jernard Jerreau, to a knee injury two minutes into the season.

But none of that excuses some of the letdowns and inattentiveness.

Although they were outscored 17-0 late in the first half, the Huskies were still close with the clock running down. Inexplicably, they seemingly started halftime early and allowed Cal guard Justin Cobbs to drive undefended to the hoop for an easy layup to end the half.

When they were trying to mount a late rally with a full-court press, the Huskies twice were beaten deep on long passes for easy buckets.

Those are inexcusable mental lapses.

Yes, turnovers are a problem, and sometimes caused by bad judgment. Yes, shooting 36 percent is a problem.

But being awake, alert and ready to hustle for 40 minutes should be the minimum expected.

Romar looked to be coaching hard, at times giving the let’s-go clap and then sometimes the calm-down hand gesture. And at times, he had to watch with arms crossed in the universal sign for “What the heck is going on?”

So, why the lapses? Why the inconsistency?

“I’m one, when it’s all said and done, is (going to) go back and evaluate what I’m doing as head coach,” Romar said. “We haven’t maybe prepared this team to be mentally tough enough.”

That, coach, appears to be the biggest issue with the Huskies right now.

Dave Boling: 253-597-8440