By Christian Caple The News Tribune
LAS VEGAS — Two poignant, contrasting images outside Washington’s locker room on Wednesday afternoon served as apt illustration of college basketball’s spectrum of emotions.
First, there was Nigel Williams-Goss, the Huskies’ freshman point guard, teary-eyed as he explained what went wrong in UW’s 67-61 loss to Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
As Williams-Goss personified that feeling of finality, Colorado’s players bounded past him through the hallway, full of optimism, on their way to their own first-round game against USC.
Hope can be fleeting this time of year. It was for the Huskies. Washington’s goal of a four-day run here lasted about two hours, as the Huskies overcame a 10-point halftime deficit against the Utes but didn’t make enough plays in the final minute to advance past the tournament’s opening game. Dakarai Tucker’s tie-breaking 3-pointer with 37.3 seconds remaining was the dagger.
Now, the Huskies (17-15) wait, hoping for an NIT invitation after the NCAA tournament field is announced on Sunday afternoon.
For the third consecutive season, UW will be left out of the big dance. That marks the longest tournament drought of Lorenzo Romar’s 12-year tenure.
“It’s very disappointing,” said senior guard and leading scorer C.J. Wilcox, who scored 14 points but made just four of his 15 field-goal attempts.
“We knew what was on the line. I thought we did a good job in the second half playing like we wanted to get there, but we just fell short.”
They also shot the ball during the first half of this noon tipoff as if they hadn’t yet awoken. They missed easy layups while making just 26.9 percent of their shots from the field. Wilcox and Williams-Goss combined to make just three of their 12 attempts.
Compounding UW’s problems was the fact that starting guard Andrew Andrews spent much of Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning vomiting, sick from apparent food poisoning. Pregame intravenous therapy made him feel a little better, and so it was decided he would play, but he managed just 24 minutes, scored just three points and attempted just three shots.
“There were spurts of energy, and there were spurts of not so much energy, I guess,” Andrews said.
With UW trailing 34-24 at halftime and Andrews limited by his illness, freshman guard Darin Johnson took advantage of the increased minutes he received. Johnson tied a career-high with 16 points, going 5-for-8 from the field and 6-for-8 from the free-throw line and played 14 minutes in the second half, 23 total.
“Going into next year, C.J. leaving, there are going to have to be some guys step up and be able to make plays,” Romar said. “He’s one of those guys going into the season that we hope is able to take the next step and do it. He certainly has the ability and talent to do it.”
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Johnson said. “Show that I’m more than just a one-dimensional player.”
His left-handed layup with 11:32 to play gave the Huskies a 41-40 lead. Washington players said afterward that their defense fueled the comeback, as they outscored Utah 17-6 over the first nine minutes of the second half.
Romar said the Huskies “did things for most of that half that in a lot of games, it would allow you to win the game.”
Instead, all it allowed is for UW to leave Las Vegas feeling as if it should still be here. UW’s final lead was 59-58 after junior forward Desmond Simmons was fouled on a tip-in and made the free throw with 1:24 to play.
Utah forward Jordan Loveridge was fouled on the Utes’ ensuing possession and made both free throws to put Utah back ahead. Simmons was fouled again, but made only one free throw, tying the score at 60-60 with 1:08 to play.
After using most of the shot clock, Loveridge found Tucker open in the corner across from Utah’s bench. The Huskies were late rotating to him, and he made a 3-pointer, much to the delight of the decidedly pro-Utah crowd.
Williams-Goss had a decent look at a 3-pointer on UW’s next possession — he said he shot it because 5-foot-10 Utah guard Brandon Taylor was guarding him — but he missed. Utah rebounded, Taylor was fouled and he made both free throws with 15.3 seconds to play to clinch it.
It was the Huskies’ latest frustrating loss in a season full of them. They just hope it isn’t their last.
“I know for me, as well as the seniors, we want to keep going,” Wilcox said. “There is always experience for the younger guys to play more in the postseason and go into next year, and get a little momentum.”