. – Lorenzo Romar was proud: “I thought we played the right way.”
Markelle Fultz was encouraged: “That was a big step for us.”
And yet Washington was still defeated, despite a surprising halftime lead, a competitive second half and a general feeling that this, all things considered, was their most impressive performance of the conference season.
No, the Huskies are not yet good enough to beat teams like No. 7 Arizona, which overcame a nine-point first-half deficit Sunday afternoon to win, 77-66, before an at-times exasperated crowd of 14,644 at the always-rowdy McKale Center. But this matchup had the makings of a massacre, and UW can consider it progress that it didn’t succumb to such a fate.
They still lost. They still were outscored by 13 points in the second half, still shot below 40 percent from the field, still missed too many free throws, still fouled too often. But the Huskies at least played like they cared, communicated better defensively and never caved in spite of the environment. For this team – now 9-12 overall and 2-7 in Pac-12 play for the first time in Romar’s 15-year tenure – that constitutes headway.
“To me,” Romar said of the Wildcats, who are now 20-2 and still unbeaten in league play at 9-0, “they’re a percentage-based team. They play on the percentages. And it’s like arm wrestling ‘til someone gives in, and they don’t. That’s what happened tonight.”
UW at least flexed for a while. The Huskies were effective in their 2-3 zone, forcing nine Arizona turnovers in the first half while holding the Wildcats to 41.7 percent shooting in that period. Washington led 15-10, then 22-14, then 26-17 after a Noah Dickerson bucket with a little more than five minutes left in the half.
Arizona missed its first eight 3-point tries. The Huskies scored 14 second-chance points off 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, and held a 33-31 advantage at the break, just their third halftime lead in nine Pac-12 games this season.
But you knew the storm was coming. Arizona used a 7-0 run to take a 42-39 lead in the first four minutes of the second half, and, as Romar said, slowly pushed that advantage to five points, to six, to 10, to 12. UW starters Matisse Thybulle and Noah Dickerson both struggled with foul trouble. Dickerson, who scored 10 points and had nine rebounds, fouled out with 7:33 remaining.
Senior guard Kadeem Allen led Arizona with 14 points. Freshman guard Kobi Simmons had 12. Starting forwards Dusan Ristic and Lauri Markkanen, both 7-footers, scored 12 apiece, and so did sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, the Seattle native playing his third game since returning from a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. The Wildcats began finding open 3-point looks against UW’s zone, making 7 of their final 13 attempts after missing their first eight.
“I think we didn’t move as fast in the second half,” Fultz said. “We were a little bit slower, so they got a chance to get middle. They started playing four guards, so they started spacing the floor and we didn’t match up right. They would swing it real fast and got a couple open 3s.”
This wasn’t Fultz’s best game, though he still led UW with 16 points and nine rebounds. But he made only 8-of-23 from the field and missed all four of his free-throw tries, part of a stunningly bad team performance of 7-for-17 from the foul line.
Fultz missed a pair with UW trailing 67-57 with 3:02 left to play. Sophomore guard David Crisp, who scored 14 points, made only 4-of-8, including a miss on an and-one attempt after making a layup that cut Arizona’s lead to 61-53 with 6:52 to play.
Sophomore guard Matisse Thybulle made it 61-55 with a driving layup, then freshman forward Sam Timmins – who played the best game of his young career, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds in 28 minutes – missed the front end of a 1-and-1.
“In this environment here, we knock our free throws down, it’s close,” Romar said. “I’m not going to say we win the game, but you can’t afford to miss that many free throws and expect to come out on top most of the time.”
Arizona responded with a bucket by Ristic and a dunk by Simmons to push the lead to 65-55, and the Huskies never cut the margin below seven points thereafter.
The Wildcats wound up shooting 45.3 percent from the field and held the Huskies to 39.1 percent, and made 22 of 30 from the free-throw line.
Afterward, Romar said he told his team: “We made progress, but we can’t take two steps back next time. We’ve got to build on this. Even though we didn’t win the game, we played right.”
For this team, it figures that right was still wrong.
PLAYER OF THE GAME – Arizona guard Kadeem Allen led his team in scoring with 14 points, had six rebounds and five assists, and played solid defense against star UW guard Markelle Fultz, the Pac-12’s leading scorer.
PLAY OF THE GAME – The Huskies failed to convert consecutive Arizona turnovers into points late in the second half, then watched as Arizona guard Allonzo Trier dunked in transition to give his team a 67-57 lead with 3:29 to play.
STAT OF THE GAME – Washington made only 7 of its 17 free-throw attempts, as Fultz and guard David Crisp combined to make just 4-for-12.
QUOTABLE – “You pretty much have to play close to error-free basketball to beat Arizona here, and we didn’t quite do that today, and that was the difference in the game.” – UW coach Lorenzo Romar
WHAT IT MEANS – Few thought the Huskies would come into McKale Center and hold Arizona to 31 points in the first half. UW looked much better defensively, and was far more competitive in this game than anyone expected. Fans don’t care about moral victories, and they shouldn’t. But as much as UW has struggled this season, this performance at least seemed a step in the right direction, even if it was still a loss.
UP NEXT – Washington vs. USC, 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPNU)