Disappointing finish

  • By Scott M. Johnson The Herald
  • Sunday, March 20, 2011 11:31am
  • Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was somewhat fitting, if not entirely coincidental, that Venoy Overton sat apart from his University of Washington teammates shortly after the Huskies’ third-round game of the NCAA tournament Sunday afternoon.

While the rest of the Huskies sat in folding chairs in o

ne of the locker rooms at Time Warner Cable Arena, many of them with heads in hands, Overton was surrounded only by team trainers in an adjacent room while trying to make sense of UW’s 86-83 loss to North Carolina.

It could be said that Overton wasn’t ready to face his teammates.

After taking an entire regular season to prove that they could win a close game at crunch time, the Huskies had become nearly invincible in those situations come tournament time. And yet when UW found itself in another position to make a shot for the ages early Sunday afternoon, it was Overton who took the ball out of the hands of the Huskies’ shooters.

“It would’ve been better if I just would’ve been on the bench (in the closing seconds), where I was most of the game,” said Overton, who played 12 total minutes after being the fourth man to come off the UW bench seven minutes into Sunday’s game.

After 38 minutes of going to toe-to-toe with East Region No. 2 seed North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ own backyard, the Huskies made too many costly mistakes down the stretch to pull off the upset and make a second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16.

The most visible one came when Overton threw up a prayer of a shot from just across midcourt with time left on the clock and the Huskies trailing by three points.

Overton took an inbounds pass with a little more than five seconds left on the clock in a game that UNC led 86-83. He sprinted up the sideline and, just as he crossed midcourt, rose into the air and threw a Hail-Mary shot with about two seconds left on the clock.

A few minutes later, inside the UW locker room, Overton said that he was expecting North Carolina freshman Kendall Marshall to intentionally foul him. It’s a common practice among teams leading by three points in the final seconds — a foul can take away the chance of a tying 3-point shot — and UNC coach Roy Williams admitted that he had instructed his players to foul in the backcourt Sunday.

But Marshall’s initial move toward a possible foul left Overton hanging in the air when the UNC freshman pulled his arm back. Overton was left with little choice but to heave the ball toward the rim.

“Game over,” a despondent Overton said later, when asked what thought that crossed his mind as he tossed the ball toward the rim from 40-something feet away.

The Huskies actually had one more chance, thanks to a UNC player touching the ball as it went out of bounds on the ill-advised heave. With 0.5 seconds remaining, Isaiah Thomas took an inbounds pass and got off an off-balance prayer from the corner. His shot, which would have been a two-pointer because his foot was on the 3-point line, fell short and was swatted away by UNC big man John Henson just below the rim.

It was a disappointing way to finish the season, especially for a UW team that had pulled off three of its final four wins in heart-stopping fashion. The Huskies had beaten Washington State by two points, defeated Arizona on Thomas’s overtime 3 at the buzzer, and hung on to beat Georgia by three points in their NCAA tournament opener Friday.

The recent string of wins in the final seconds were enough to make the Huskies feel invincible.
So it was no wonder that Thomas recalled the final five seconds of Sunday’s game by saying: “I felt like we were going to win.”

Thanks to some key mistakes down the stretch — Overton was not the only culprit — the Huskies didn’t pull it out this time.

UW had built up an 11-point lead in the first half, only to see North Carolina use a pair of runs to come all the way back. The teams traded leads six times in the second half, and the score was within three points for 16 of the final 20 minutes.

The Tar Heels opened up their biggest lead of the day, at 80-76, on a pair of free throws with 31/2 minutes remaining.

About 90 seconds later, with UNC still leading by four, UW wing player Terrence Ross made his first big mistake after 38 minutes of carrying the Huskies’ offensive load. Ross was holding the ball on the wing and about to make a move when UNC’s star freshman, Harrison Barnes, reached out and stole the ball out of his hands. Barnes passed to streaking teammate Dexter Strickland, who went up for a layup on the other end and was rewarded two points when Ross was called for goal tending.

Ross, who finished with a team-high 19 points and almost single-handedly carried the Huskies to a 26-15 lead midway through the first half, said he “wasn’t really paying attention” to Barnes and “wasn’t strong with the ball” on the key turnover.

At that point, North Carolina led by six points with 1:58 remaining, but the Huskies weren’t finished yet. A Matthew Bryan-Amaning putback pulled the Huskies to within 84-80 with 1:46 left, and then, after an unsuccessful Ross drive to the hoop, Scott Suggs nailed the Huskies’ biggest shot of the night with a 3-pointer from the wing.

That left North Carolina clinging to an 84-83 lead with 17 seconds left, and a missed Tar Heels free throw two seconds later gave UW a chance for the last shot.

But Overton tried to drive the ball to the basket against the 6-foot-10 Henson, who blocked it out of bounds with 7.4 seconds remaining. Henson’s 88-inch wingspan came into play again on Justin Holiday’s inbounds pass, which the Carolina big man tipped and which eventually ended up in the hands of Strickland.

With 5.4 seconds remaining, Strickland made a pair of free throws to extend the UNC lead to 86-83, and the Huskies had one final shot at glory.

During a timeout, UW coach Lorenzo Romar called for Overton to push the ball up the floor and get it into the hands of one of the Huskies’ shooters, who had made 10 of 19 shots from 3-point range in the game. While the timeout did not include any instruction of Overton trying to induce a foul and free throws, the senior contends he later saw Romar signal him that a foul was coming.

“I’ve been watching basketball for a long time, so I thought they were going to foul me,” Overton said after the game. “I misjudged (Marshall’s) reach, I thought he was really going to reach, and I got in the air and had to throw it up.”

A few minutes later, several teammates sat in the next room, trying to come to terms with the end of a season that started with so much promise.

“The season’s over,” said Bryan-Amaning, one of three seniors and among the players whose heads were in their hands during the post-game media session. “I’m not a college basketball player anymore.”

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