SEATTLE — You could make the case these were two in-state rivals going at it for bragging rights and all that sort of thing.
But more than anything, these were two teams desperately needing a win. And on Sunday afternoon they played like it.
When it was over, the University of Washington men’s basketball team had made fewer mistakes down the stretch and held onto a 72-68 decision over Washington State in a spirited matinee at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Mind you, it was not always pretty. But for the Huskies, who have now won back-to-back games for the first time since mid-January, it was a very welcome outcome indeed.
“I thought our guys did a lot of good things,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. “I thought we competed especially hard in the second half and I thought we had a lot of energy on defense. … So it was a real good team win for us.”
Washington, which had wins against Arizona State (two) and Oregon State in its previous 11 games, will now try to close its regular season with a four-game winning streak. The 16-13 Huskies host USC on Wednesday and UCLA on Saturday before heading to next week’s Pacific-12 Conference tournament in Las Vegas, where a tourney title is almost certainly their only opportunity to reach the NCAA tournament.
“We’re trying to fight for our lives right now, and trying to go into the Pac-12 tournament with some momentum,” said UW guard Scott Suggs, who had 23 points against the Cougars to share high scoring honors with teammate C.J. Wilcox.
Washington State, meanwhile, is suffering through a stretch of even greater woe. The Cougars were 9-4 in their non-conference schedule, but have slid to the Pac-12 cellar with a 2-14 league mark.
On Sunday, WSU looked ready to win for the first time since a Jan. 26 game at Oregon State. After a back-and-forth first half, the Cougars used three quick 3-pointers and a pair of free throws in the first 90 seconds of the second half to grab a 43-35 lead.
But that was to be their high water mark. The Huskies rallied to tie the score, though the game remained close until the last 41⁄2 minutes when the Cougars simply came undone.
Washington went ahead to stay when WSU committed three straight turnovers, including two seemingly safe passes that instead ended up out of bounds. Moments later there were two more WSU turnovers on consecutive possessions, and then a missed layin.
In the final minute, the Cougars got a break when Washington’s Abdul Gaddy threw an in-bounds pass out of bounds against WSU’s full-court defensive press. But when the Cougars tried to pass in-bounds from under their own basket — they trailed by five, so it was a chance to make it a one-possession game — they instead threw the ball to Wilcox, who was promptly fouled.
Wilcox swished two free throws, giving the Huskies a seven-point lead that was too much to overcome.
“The kids played hard,” said WSU coach Ken Bone, “but we made mistakes, on the offensive end especially. At the end of the game they were critical mistakes that gave Washington the opportunity to have more possessions than we had, and that makes it difficult to win ballgames.”
While Suggs and Wilcox shared the scoring spotlight, Romar had praise for backup forward Desmond Simmons, who was assigned to defend Brock Motum, WSU’s leading scorer, for much of the game.
Shawn Kemp Jr. started the game defending Motum, but after Motum scored two quick field goals, Kemp was quickly replaced by Simmons, who ended up playing 28 minutes despite scoring just two points.
“We don’t have a whole lot of answers for Brock Motum,” Romar said, “but Desmond does a good job of limiting his touches. … When Brock Motum gets in a zone he’ll score 40 on you, and we did not want that to happen. So we made a quick substitution.”
Motum finished with 18 points, but had just four field goals after the two early baskets.
With the win, Washington raised its league mark to 8-8. The Huskies are still eighth in the Pac-12 standings, but could climb as high as fifth with two more wins this week.
“We just need to be consistent,” Wilcox said. “We’ve had games where we’ve done everything the right way, and we’ve had games where we’ve done pretty much nothing the right way. But this is the time of the season where we have to put everything together and try to make a run at it.”