By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — That sound you may have heard from down south was the rare December popping of a bubble, as the University of Washington saw its hopes of a possible at-large bid to the March NCAA tournament vanish in the air.
Rest in peace, Huskies’ RPI.
A UW men’s basketball team that failed to cash in on two marquee games against top-10 teams earlier this month looked like the early-season cupcake for unheralded South Dakota State in a non-conference game at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday. The Jackrabbits jumped on the Huskies early and led for the final 39 minutes of the game en route to a 92-73 win.
South Dakota State point guard Nate Wolters played all 40 minutes while scoring 34 points and dishing out seven assists — without a single turnover — as the Jackrabbits (10-4) snapped UW’s 32-game home winning streak in non-conference games.
When asked to describe the feeling as the final seconds ticked down, UW sophomore C.J. Wilcox said: “Just shock. Just looking around the gym, knowing this is our house and we got beat pretty good at our house, that’s not a good feeling.”
It marked the Huskies’ most lopsided home loss since Gonzaga beat UW 86-62 in Dec. 2003.
“Disappointed,” said Huskies freshman point guard Tony Wroten Jr. of his emotions following the game. “We haven’t lost at home in so long (since March 2008 in non-conference play). I don’t care who it is, we’re not supposed to lose at home. So that’s frustrating.”
Both Wroten and coach Lorenzo Romar cited a lack of energy on the part of the Huskies, who were outplayed from the outset by a smaller, less accomplished team that was coming off a loss to North Dakota just last week.
Romar called Sunday’s performance “unacceptable” and added that he sensed some lethargy in his players during an 8:30 a.m. team breakfast.
“You know your team,” he said after the game. “You know the look in their eyes, when they have a pep in their step and when they’re just down and lax. I don’t think they’ve ever seen highlights on SportsCenter of South Dakota State, and sometimes that can have an effect.”
What was obvious in watching the game was that the Huskies didn’t expect this kind of performance from Wolters. The 6-foot-3 junior from St. Cloud, Minn., drove by Wroten and Wilcox at will and battled through second-half exhaustion to go wire-to-wire. While South Dakota State built up its huge lead behind 3-point shooting — the Jackrabbits made their first seven and were 10-for-16 for the game — it was Wolters who kept the Huskies at arm’s length all afternoon.
“He was ridiculous,” teammate Griffan Carlson said.
Romar, in what appeared to be an unintentional shot at Wroten, pointed out early in his post-game press conference that it was “interesting I’ve never seen (Wolters’) name on any mock drafts” but added that the SDSU guard showed that kind of talent Sunday.
“I haven’t seen a performance like that since Jason Kidd was in the Pac-10,” Romar said. “… I thought it was an awesome performance. One of the best performances by a point guard I’ve ever seen at this level.”
The Jackrabbits hit their first seven 3-point shots and 11 of their first 14 field goals in building up a 35-14 lead midway through the first half. They led by 18 at the half — 51-33 — and maintained a double-digit lead for all but 17 seconds after halftime. Along the way, UW lost Terrence Ross to five fouls midway through the second half.
SDSU shot 54.9 percent from the field, made 26 of 32 foul shots and had just five turnovers. The Jackrabbits set the tone by hitting their first seven 3-point attempts and never let up.
“At the start, we were getting anything we wanted, it seemed like,” Wolters said. “We just made our open 3s, and that certainly helps.”
He also said he expected the state of South Dakota to be celebrating late Sunday night.
“They’ll be happy,” he said after the Jackrabbits’ first-ever game against an opponent from the Pacific-12 Conference — or the Pac-10, for that matter. “We had a terrible loss (last week at North Dakota), so I’m sure they’ll be pretty excited.”
The feeling in and around UW is quite the opposite. While Romar said the loss wasn’t necessarily a season-changer, he did send out a message after the loss.
“Is it time to panic?” he said. “If we’re doing this again (Thursday night against Cal State) Northridge, then it’s time to panic.”
What’s clear is that a home loss to South Dakota State, in addition to the missed opportunities against Marquette and Duke a few days earlier, could not only knock the Huskies out of contention for an NCAA at-large bid but could also keep them off the proverbial bubble.
“It’s definitely not going to help us,” said Wroten, who had a team-high 23 points for the Huskies. “Now we just have to win, win, win.”
Romar didn’t want to even think about tournament scenarios Sunday afternoon.
“Before we start figuring out the RPI and all that, we better get better,” he said, “or those questions are irrelevant. … We need to do one thing: we need to get better.”