SEATTLE — It’s hard to say what was most telling about the University of Washington men’s basketball team through 20 minutes of play Sunday afternoon, but the two things that stood out the most said a lot.
The struggling Huskies turned to freshman walk-on Quinn Sterling in desperation in the final 90 seconds, hoping to get a spark out of the Mercer Island product who had yet to get off the bench this season. And then it was Sterling who provided the most notable play of the first half for UW, tying up a Cal State Fullerton player on an inbound pass under the basket.
Yes, it was beginning to look like another one of those days at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
The same arena that housed Husky losses to teams like South Dakota State and Albany was getting more and more quiet as the visiting CSUF Titans built up a 14-point halftime lead and trailed only once — at 2-0 — through the first 37 minutes of the game.
Thanks to a pair of unlikely heroes, and two mind-boggling mental mistakes by the Titans in the closing 22 seconds, the Huskies survived. This time.
“We’ve just got to find a way,” said leading scorer C.J. Wilcox, who had a team-high 21 points despite a horrid 7-for-21 shooting performance in the 74-72 win. “We have the potential to beat teams by 10, 15 (points). But just for us, we’ve got to find ways to win the game.”
What the Huskies (4-3) found Sunday were some unexpected heroics from new starter Andrew Andrews and the man he replaced in the starting lineup. Andrews sank three of four free throws in the final 21.5 seconds, while sophomore Desmond Simmons came off the bench to score 14 points and pull down 18 rebounds — the highest total by a UW player since Jon Brockman had 18 in a 2009 NCAA tournament loss to Purdue.
“That was a very Jon Brockman-esque performance by Desmond Simmons,” coach Lorenzo Romar said, comparing Simmons to the former UW great and Snohomish High School product. “… Everyone was looking for someone to step up, and he was the one who stepped up.”
While Simmons provided the needed boost of energy and Andrews hit some key free throws, it was a pair of CSUF stars who helped the Huskies in the end.
After UW rallied to take its first lead since the opening minute at 67-65 with 2:52 remaining, the Titans’ Alex Harris hit a score-tying layup with 21.5 seconds remaining and followed that up with an inexcusable foul on the inbounds.
Andrews calmly hit a pair of free throws to give UW a 71-69 lead, then added another free throw 10 seconds later for a three-point advantage. CSU Fullerton rebounded Andrews’ miss on the second free throw, dribbled down and tied the score on a Harris 3-pointer from the baseline with 4.3 seconds remaining.
Inexplicably, the Titans (3-4) made the same mistake on the inbounds pass that followed, only this time it was leading scorer D.J. Seeley who fouled. Seeley ran into Wilcox as the ball arrived, sending the CSUF bench into hysterics and Wilcox to the free-throw line.
“It was tough,” CSU Fullerton interim head coach Andy Newman said. “Those guys battled so hard, so dang hard, and to watch those plays happen was heartbreaking for (the players). And I hurt for them too. You work on those in-game situations, but until you get into a game, you really don’t know.”
Seeley, who scored 15 of his 24 points before halftime while the Titans built up a 43-29 lead at the break, took the blame for the foul on Wilcox with 3.6 seconds to go and said that he should have known the situation.
“I shouldn’t have even tried to get the ball,” he said. “I tried to be the hero.”
Wilcox, who calmly hit two free throws that ended up being the game-winners when Fullerton’s 30-footer bounced high off the backboard at the buzzer, was as shocked as anyone to get a free pass at the charity stripe in the closing seconds.
“I was surprised at the first foul (on Harris), and then they did it again,” he said.
Sunday’s game was far from UW’s finest performance, but it’s the kind of game the Huskies need to win in their current state. Four NBA draft picks have left in a three-year span — Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten had eligibility remaining this season — and two potential starters in Scott Suggs and Shawn Kemp Jr. are currently sidelined by injuries. Adding to the mess were the cramping problems that starting point guard Abdul Gaddy had in the second half of Sunday’s game, limiting him to 11 minutes of action after halftime.
“This may have been the biggest win for us of our preseason,” Romar said, “because we’re going to start getting our team back. Some of the guys are going to attempt to start to practice this week, in regards to Scott and Shawn. … We’ve got to get over the hump in games like this, and somehow we survived.”