By Scott M. Johnson
SEATTLE — The University of Washington men’s basketball team jumped to a quick lead over the underdog Florida Atlantic Owls early Sunday evening.
And it was a good thing for the Huskies, who needed almost every bit of it.
After allowing the first point of the game, UW quickly responded with an 11-0 run and led for the final 39 minutes of Sunday’s game, but the Huskies barely escaped with a 77-71 win. It marked the second day in a row that UW (2-0) has allowed a smaller, less-talented opponent to make the home fans sweat during play at the three-day World Vision Classic at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
“We had to rally up and figure out a way to win,” said UW junior point guard Abdul Gaddy, who had 15 points and six assists in the win. “They got hot, they started making shots, but we started executing down the stretch.”
Florida Atlantic survived a horrid start, and a 14-point deficit in the first half, to pull within four points, at 74-70, with 1:21 remaining. But, thanks in large part to a missed open 3-pointer, a missed free throw and a missed layup in the final 40 seconds, the Owls (0-2) couldn’t pull off the upset.
“They were coming alive,” Gaddy said. “We were lucky enough to come out on the positive side.”
After spending part of recent seasons trying to balance playing time for a deep roster of talent, this year’s Huskies relied mainly on a six-man rotation Sunday. Freshman Tony Wroten Jr. was the only reserve to provide much help, and even he sat the final three minutes because of a costly turnover. UW turned to its starting lineup down the stretch, barely hanging on after a furious FAU rally.
For the second game in a row, the Huskies needed some hot 3-point shooting from C.J. Wilcox to save their inconsistent offense. The 6-foot-5 sophomore scored a team-high 19 points, hitting three 3-pointers. His most interesting basket of the game came on a traditional 3-point play, which he converted after losing control of the ball and batting it up off the glass and into the hoop on the way to a 56-44 lead with 11 minutes remaining.
That play stopped a 7-0 run by the Owls, and it appeared that FAU’s second-half run may have fizzled, but the Owls just kept coming.
FAU scored the first point of the game on a free throw but trailed by scores of 11-1 and 22-8 early in the first half. Eleven minutes into the game, the Owls had made just 3-of-15 field-goal attempts, hit 1 of 5 from the free-throw line, and were out-rebounded 19-7.
A 9-0 run allowed the Owls to creep to within eight points, while the Huskies struggled with shooting and turnovers, but UW eventually went into halftime leading 35-24.
“The really good teams, they step on people’s throats,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar, whose team led by as many as 15 points early in the second half. “… We’re not there yet. We have to get there.”
The Huskies had four players in double figures, including a double-double performance from 7-foot junior Aziz N’Diaye (13 points, 12 rebounds). But N’Diaye’s night might be better-remembered for his inability to convert some easy baskets at the rim.
“I’ve got to take my time and focusing on finishing,” said N’Diaye, who missed seven of his 12 shots in the lane. “It’s something I work on in practice, but I just have to work on using the glass more.”
N’Diaye and UW’s other top two big men (6-8 Darnell Gant and 6-7 Desmond Simmons) combined to go 6-for-17 from the field despite playing against a significantly smaller team that had no starter taller than 6-8.
In the end, Romar had to rely on the few experienced players he has on the roster to put teams away in the end. UW’s five starters, the only five healthy contributors from the 2010-11 team, each played at least 25 minutes Sunday. Guards Gaddy, Wilcox and Terrence Ross each played at least 34 minutes.
Romar said he will stick with his veterans “until freshmen are able to come right in there and you don’t miss a beat. We’ve had that happen many times (in the past).”
Saddled by foul trouble for much of the night, Wroten played just 18 minutes and watched the final 31/2 minutes from the UW bench. He came out after an ill-advised interior pass was out of N’Diaye’s reach and sailed out of bounds for a turnover.
Romar said that turnover didn’t have anything to do with Wroten finishing the game on the bench.
“We just went with veterans down the stretch, down there at the end,” Romar said. “Tony had four fouls, (and) it’s hard to play with four fouls — you’re not as aggressive when you’re in there.”
In the end, Romar was glad that the Huskies got tested and relieved that they held on in the end.
“I don’t like to lose and say: ‘Well, we’ll learn from this one,’” he said Sunday night. “I’d prefer to win and say: ‘We’ll learn from this one.’ Hopefully, this was one of those games. We won the game, and a lot of lessons to be learned.”
Gaddy said UW certainly learned from Sunday’s performance.
“We’ve got to play hard for 40 minutes,” he said. “We can’t have mental lapses. We haven’t met our best test yet. We’ve got some tough games on the road, and we’ve got to be prepared for them.”