Hameir Wright had a message for his Washington teammates before Saturday’s game against Arizona — this game might not mean a lot to anyone else, he said, but it had to matter to them.
It was a measuring stick. A way for the Huskies (5-20, 4-16 Pac-12) to see how far they’d come since their first game against Arizona (17-8, 11-8) in December. That game was a 27-point loss, one of UW’s worst performances of the season. And while the rematch also ended in defeat, the Wildcats needed a basket in the final seconds to win Saturday’s game, 75-74.
“The later you go into the season, the more chemistry you’re going to get with guys and the ball was really moving and popping,” Wright said. “We were just fighting. At this point in the season, you can give up or you can fight. We chose to fight.”
The Huskies ended the regular season on a three-game losing streak, and it was hardly their first string of defeats this year. The season will go down as one of the worst in the program’s history, so it would have been easy for UW to limp through its final games. But that’s not what head coach Mike Hopkins has seen in the Huskies’ last two outings, starting with Thursday’s 80-72 loss at Arizona State.
“I’m just really proud of them,” Hopkins said. “It’s hard. It’s a hard, hard season not having the success that we wanted to. That was the eighth game in 17 days. There’s no practice time. You’re watching film. You’re getting some shots. You’re trying to manage your energy. That’s why I was just really proud of them.
“Tonight, we fought. We were down nine second half. We executed offensively. We battled defensively. Two of our three bigs were in foul trouble, fouled out. We were light heavyweight fighting heavyweight tonight and that’s all you want from your kids. You want them to play hard, you want them to play smart and you want them to play together. I thought for the most part they did that tonight.”
Arizona had a slim 33-29 advantage at halftime, which it built into separate leads of 9 and 8 in the second half. But the Huskies kept climbing back. With 1:33 remaining, Erik Stevenson made a layup to give UW its first lead, 71-70, since early in the first half. Stevenson then went 1-for-2 at the free-throw line to push that advantage to 72-70.
James Akinjo responded with a 3-pointer for Arizona to put the Wildcats back on top, but Quade Green hit two free throws to give the Huskies a 74-73 lead with 1:01 remaining. After Akinjo missed a layup at the other end, Green turned the ball over on an offensive foul to give possession back to Arizona with 18 seconds left.
With 5 seconds remaining, Azulolas Tubelis drained what seemed like a 3-pointer. The shot was eventually ruled a two, but the call only trimmed the Wildcats’ margin of victory to one point. The Huskies didn’t take a timeout after the basket, and Green missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Hopkins said the Huskies have a set play they run in the final five seconds. But because starting forwards Nate Roberts and Wright had both fouled out, UW didn’t have key players at the four and five spots. Hopkins didn’t want Arizona to get set defensively, so he didn’t take a timeout. But the review of Tubelis’ shot gave the Wildcats that chance.
“We’re trying to get the ball on the run and try to race it down the court where we get some momentum,” Hopkins said. “They did a good job of keeping it in front. We passed it to (Green), kind of slowed him up a little bit. … When you’re in those types of situations, sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you wanted it to work out.”
UW’s starting front line — Wright and Roberts — both fouled out late in the second half. That left UW with limited options inside. Center Riley Sorn, who is 7-foot-4, was available, but Hopkins elected to spend most of the second half with a smaller lineup on the floor. The Wildcats finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage.
The Huskies found rare offensive balance in the loss. Instead of relying on a single scoring option, they had five players in double figures. Wright led the way with a career-high 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field, including 5-of-7 from the 3-point line.
“He’s been so good for us defensively for so long,” Hopkins said. “It kind of gets underappreciated. I think what people saw tonight is what we see every day in practice and you’re just hoping that it shows. Tonight he was who he can be. He’s a really good shooter. He works on his game. He’s a really good defensive player, understands angles and defense and talks. We wouldn’t have had a chance to win without his performance tonight.”
Green added 17 points while Marcus Tsohonis had 13. Tsohonis helped keep UW in the game in the second half as his back-to-back jumpers tied the game at 69 with 2:33 remaining. Stevenson and Jamal Bey also finished in double figures with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
“You watch when you huddle,” Hopkins said. “You watch guys talking to each other. You look at guys making the extra pass. I really felt that tonight. It’s about executing the game plan and I’ve got your back and you got mine.
“We had to do it for longer periods of time. I felt tonight we really, really had a good effort tonight in that regard. That’s when you make shots. That’s when you make foul shots. It’s team defense. It’s team offense. It’s not one or two guys. I thought even tonight, having five guys in double figures, that’s the first time that’s happened this season.”
After playing eight games in 16 days, UW will now have 10 days off to prepare for the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. Wright said he hopes the Huskies can build off the last two performances as they head into the postseason.
“It’s tough to lose by two and it’s tough to lose by 30,” Wright said. “It’s tough to lose in general. But what we got to do is take away from each game and just get better.
“We knew halfway through the season, we’re going to have to peak at the end. We’re going to have to gradually get better. We’re going to have to work on stuff, make adjustments. We took it in stride as a team and we’re really starting to hit our stride.”