SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The University of Washington’s shot at history ran into a team of destiny on Thursday night.
The Huskies’ chance for their deepest NCAA tournament run in more than 50 years ended at the hands of a streaking West Virginia team that simply ran away from UW down the stretch. The Mountaineers used a 20-6 second-half surge on the way to a 69-56 win, handing the Huskies their fifth Sweet 16 loss in as many trips.
It ended UW’s nine game winning streak and marked the ninth win in a row for a red-hot West Virginia team that had three buzzer-beating victories during that stretch.
The Huskies (26-10) still haven’t won more than two consecutive games in a single NCAA tournament, and they haven’t gone to the Elite Eight since the field was expanded to 32 teams in 1975. Only the 1953 Huskies, which went to the Final Four in a 22-team field, made it past the Round of 16.
“The questions start: can you ever get past the Sweet 16?” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said after the Huskies’ first loss in more than a month and their worst since USC thumped them by 26 points on Jan. 23. “I never understood why people were so hard on the (Denver) Broncos when they couldn’t quite win the (Super Bowl). They did make it there.
“So I feel like we still have accomplished a lot, even though we didn’t make that next step this year.”
On Thursday, the Huskies lost in part because of some uncharacteristic breakdowns by both the players and Romar. A three-month high of 21 turnovers, a rare off-night from senior Quincy Pondexter, an inability to crack the zone defense and a couple episodes of Romar losing his cool all played factors in the loss.
And in the end, the Mountaineers proved more worthy of moving on to the Elite Eight.
“West Virginia didn’t just come out and go on a 25-0 run,” said Romar, whose Huskies led by two at halftime. “They just slowly, methodically continued to chip away, and the lead began to increase very slowly.”
West Virginia’s size proved superior to that of the Huskies, playing a factor in both UW’s inability to crack the second-half zone and Pondexter’s game-long struggles. The senior finished with seven points on 3-for-9 shooting and also had four turnovers in what he called an “awful” performance.
But this was no one-man weight for the Huskies to bear. The entire team went cold for much of the second half, missing 10 of 11 shots against the zone during one 61/2–minute stretch that saw the Mountaineers turn a 37-36 deficit into a 52-41 lead.
“In the second half,” Romar said, “we just kind of went downhill.”
West Virginia’s Bob Huggins said a renewed focus on rebounding instead of trying to run with the Huskies was the key to his team’s second-half turnaround. The Mountaineers out-rebounded UW 29-16 in the second half and 49-29 for the game.
“I think we were thinking about getting back (on defense) rather than doing what we do,” Huggins said. “That’s what I told them at halftime, I said: ‘You know, maybe we’re going to lose, I don’t know. But if we lose, let’s lose our way. Let’s lose doing what we do.’”
The Huskies survived a scoreless first half from Pondexter, who was limited to seven minutes because of foul trouble. With Pondexter mostly relegated to the role of a spectator, UW grinded out a 29-27 lead behind 10 points from Justin Holiday — including two big 3-pointers to quell shifts in momentum.
The Huskies’ lead actually could have been bigger had it not been for the play of West Virginia’s Deniz Kilicli, a 6-foot-9 freshman who came off the bench to score six points in the final 3:17 of the first half.
The Mountaineers missed their first six 3-point attempts but were able to stay in the game because neither team was able to sustain much offensive consistency. The two teams combined for 24 turnovers during a sloppy first half.
West Virginia got it together at halftime, coming out to score seven of the first nine points of the second half. After Devin Ebanks took a Joe Mazzulla alley-oop pass and laid it in to give the Mountaineers a 36-33 lead 3:18 into the second half, Romar called a timeout, barked at his players, then slapped a clipboard to the floor.
That momentarily sparked the Huskies, who scored four unanswered points, but a new obstacle befuddled UW over the next six minutes. After West Virginia switched to a zone defense, the Huskies missed 10 of their next 11 shots while falling behind 52-41.
Then, at the 8:11 mark, Romar lost his cool again. This time, while protesting a blocking call on UW’s Holiday, the coach violently ripped off his suit coat in a show of protest. He was immediately given a technical foul, and the four subsequent free throws allowed West Virginia to build up its biggest lead of the game at 56-43.
UW got within six points, at 56-50 with 61/2 minutes to play, but could pull no closer.
After the Mountaineers’ lead swelled back to 15 points, the Huskies’ night took on its most symbolic image when Pondexter threw up an airball on a 3-point attempt while teammate Isaiah Thomas, saddled with five fouls, sat on the UW bench with head sunk low.
“They went on a couple runs, but I felt like we were never done,” Thomas said a few minutes later. “I never thought it was over. Until the end.”
The last time the Huskies made it beyond the Round of 16 was in 1953, when UW won two games in a 22-team tournament to go to the first — and only — Final Four in program history.
The way this year’s team was playing, the 2009-10 Huskies thought they would make similar history.
“It hurts,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think it was going to end. I felt like we were going to go on a run, and it hurts that the season’s over now.”