By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The few bodies left on the University of Washington bandwagon spilled into a half-empty Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Tuesday night and witnessed something akin to Weekend at Bernie’s.
And not just because UW’s National Invitational Tournament opener at times looked like a bad comedy.
In a morbid way, the Huskies’ return to action in a national postseason game was a bit like propping up a corpse of a season for all to see.
And for more than 30 minutes, it looked like UW might finally be put out of its misery.
But in the end, the Huskies rewarded the 2,081 fans at Hec Ed by shaking off a pesky Texas-Arlington team, 82-72, and extending what’s left of a mostly forgotten season.
UW (22-10) used a 19-6 run midway through the second half to escape the upstart Mavericks and move on to the second round of the NIT.
“We were able to get through it,” said coach Lorenzo Romar, whose Huskies will host Northwestern (19-13) Friday night and need two more wins to make the trip to Madison Square Garden for the NIT semifinals.
Despite getting pounded on the boards (37-27), looking at times like they’d rather be watching the NCAA play-in games on television, and spending the first 10 minutes of the second half in a virtual deadlock, the Huskies finally got it together down the stretch. A Texas-Arlington team that spent a good part of Monday traveling simply ran out of gas in the end. The Mavericks (24-9) went almost five minutes without scoring a point while letting a 59-58 lead turn into a 77-65 deficit.
UW used a zone defense to limit UTA down the stretch.
Afterward, the Huskies seemed more relieved than anything to have escaped with a win.
“We knew they weren’t going to give it away,” UW senior Darnell Gant said. “It’s desperation time. They weren’t going to roll over. They made us work for it.”
From the outset, UW looked to be in for a long night. Freshman Tony Wroten Jr., who struggled all game to get into the lane for his trademark points in the paint, was called for charging on the Huskies’ opening possession. The next time down the floor, UW came up empty again when Terrence Ross threw up a 3-pointer from the baseline and watched it bounce of the top of the backboard.
But Ross made his trademark spurt midway through the first half, scoring 11 consecutive UW points. He single-handedly outscored UT-Arlington 11-2, beginning with his first field goal on a baseline drive with 8:32 remaining in the half and ending with an alley-oop dunk with 5:40 to go, giving UW a 32-24 lead.
But after that, the Huskies went more than four minutes without a field goal, missing seven consecutive shots as the Mavericks climbed back into the game. UT-Arlington went on a 9-0 run to pull ahead 35-34 before UW’s Gant hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 32 seconds to play in the half. The Mavericks’ Bo Ingram was credited with a tip-in at the buzzer to tie the score at 37 going into halftime.
The Huskies not only got outscored 11-3 over the final 41⁄2 minutes of the half, but they also got out-rebounded 25-12 through 20 minutes of action.
UW looked to be pulling away several times in the opening minutes of the second half but couldn’t shake the Mavericks. When UTA’s Kevin Butler turned a Wroten turnover into a fast-break layup with 9:51 remaining, the Huskies found themselves trailing 59-58.
But Ross, who finished with a game-high 23 points in what may be one of his final auditions for NBA scouts, got the UW offense on track again with a pair of 3-pointers on the way to a 68-65 lead with 7:07 remaining.
After UW’s Gant missed a 3-point shot with 61⁄2 minutes remaining, Romar got into the senior’s face in a heated exchange in front of the UW bench. Gant said afterward that Romar was mad about a defensive assignment, adding that the exchange fired him up down the stretch.
That seemed to spark any passion that had been missing from the Huskies, who scored nine unanswered points to open up a 77-65 lead with 2:57 remaining. The tired Mavericks couldn’t figure out UW’s zone defense down the stretch, and so the Huskies will live to play another game.
Romar, who all but guaranteed that the Huskies would be over their Selection Sunday disappointment and ready for Tuesday’s 7 p.m. tip, was just glad that his team eventually got it going.
“I don’t think we weren’t ready to go,” he said after Tuesday’s win. “We were ready to play, but I think we turned it up (after halftime). I don’t think we really understood how scrappy they were.”
Said Ross: “We all came out with the right mindset. We feel like we still have a lot to play for.”
Now, the Huskies hope to have Ross available for the next game, even though he was nursing a sore right hip that limited him down the stretch Tuesday. After the game, Ross shrugged off the injury and said he’ll be available for Friday’s 7 p.m. game against Northwestern.
“I’ll be ready for the next game,” he said.