TUCSON, Ariz. — To celebrate wildly about a close loss to a quality basketball team would be silly.
To dismiss entirely the notion that it could bode well for the future, however, would be ignorant.
So maybe it’s not lost on the Washington Huskies that this 71-62 defeat at Arizona — unbeaten, No. 1-ranked, untouchable-at-home Arizona — meant something more than another number in the loss column.
The Huskies didn’t win at McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, though they played as if they believed they could. They may also have learned something that, coupled with Thursday’s impressive victory at Arizona State, will help as they maneuver into the teeth of what figures to be a difficult Pac-12 schedule.
“If we understand that now we’re a better defensive team than we were before,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said, “and we take that with us and understand if we play the right way, that we have a chance to be competitive with anyone in our league … if we can remember that, and remember why, then we can draw from this weekend and it could help us.”
It was surprising enough that the Huskies blitzed Arizona State on Thursday, defending and executing in transition better than they have in any game this season.
Saturday’s performance was even more unexpected. Arizona entered the game as one of the nation’s best defensive and rebounding teams, and defeated its first 14 opponents by an average of 20.7 points.
Yet there were the Huskies, leading 35-33 at halftime after shooting 55.6 percent from the field and out-rebounding the Wildcats 17-12.
And their defense was even better than against the Sun Devils. Arizona’s starting lineup includes three players who are 6-foot-8 or taller. Washington starts four guards. Yet UW limited Arizona to 39.3 percent shooting in the first half and 42.1 percent overall, with senior forward Perris Blackwell matching well against 7-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski, and the Huskies’ guards collapsing down to front the Wildcats’ other post players.
Washington’s lead expanded to 42-36 after Nigel Williams-Goss converted a 3-point play with 16:42 remaining in the game, the 14,545 in attendance quieted each time UW answered an Arizona bucket with a quality offensive play of its own.
But Arizona seized control by exploiting Washington’s most obvious shortcomings: its lack of size and depth. It didn’t help that Blackwell played most of the second half with three and then four fouls, and that reserve forward Shawn Kemp Jr., who scored nine points in nine minutes in the first half, couldn’t stay on the floor.
Kemp picked up his third foul late in the first half, then was called for his fourth immediately after Williams-Goss’ bucket that put UW up by six points. When Romar re-inserted Kemp with 10:58 to play — the Huskies led 50-49 — he fouled out 21 seconds later.
“It’s very difficult,” said Blackwell of the foul trouble, though he finished the game with 12 points and 12 rebounds in 34 minutes. “It just adds pressure on me, being the only big, really. I’m still proud of Shawn. He came out that first half, that’s the best he’s played. I just hope he can build on that.”
Romar emphasized to his team this week that Arizona would make Washington pay for its mistakes. He was right. The Huskies committed 15 turnovers, off of which the Wildcats scored 20 points. Nick Johnson, Arizona’s feisty guard, scored a game-high 24 points and had a handful of transition dunks or layups, including a one-handed, 360-degree jam after a steal.
When Arizona took the lead in the last seven minutes — by two points, then five, then six, and eventually nine, the final margin — Romar said he thought the Huskies abandoned what had worked earlier, “just offensively thinking maybe that we had to just hit home runs every time we got the basketball right away. That put them kind of in a rhythm and a little more transition. We missed some box outs that were timely and key, and there they went.”
UW did struggle offensively in the second half, scoring only 12 points in the final 12:30 and missing 17 of its final 20 shot attempts.
The Huskies (9-6, 1-1) say it was Arizona’s size that did them in. Freshman forward Aaron Gordon dinged them for 18 points and 11 rebounds, and was a force on the glass down the stretch. Combined, UA’s three starting bigs scored 34 points, grabbed 22 rebounds and made 12 of their 26 shot attempts.
“They were crashing the boards pretty hard and we weren’t boxing them out,” said senior guard C.J. Wilcox, who led the Huskies with 20 points on 8-of-19 shooting, “and that’s where they got a lot of their points, especially in the second half.”
So UW returns home with a split of what might be the toughest road trip in the Pac-12 this season. The Huskies host Utah and Colorado on Wednesday and Sunday.
“We can play defense. We can play with the good teams. You can’t really count us out,” Blackwell said. “That’s what we take from this.”
Which is better than nothing.