Washington forward Hameir Wright (left) and UCLA guard Tyger Campbell dive for a loose ball during the second half of a game Jan. 16, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Washington forward Hameir Wright (left) and UCLA guard Tyger Campbell dive for a loose ball during the second half of a game Jan. 16, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

UW leads at half, but comes up short in loss to UCLA

The Huskies fall to 1-11 on the season with a nail-biting 81-76 loss to the first-place Bruins.

By Lauren Kirschman / The News Tribune

This game won’t count in the win column. And like all teams, Washington isn’t interested in moral victories.

The Huskies (1-11, 0-7), still looking for their first Pac-12 win, are now on an eight-game losing streak. Only a win — the real kind — will put an end to that skid.

But UW has also lost by 15 or more points six times this season, including four losses by at least 20 points. On Thursday, the Huskies lost to USC 95-68 in a game they never led. So even though Saturday’s 81-76 loss to first-place UCLA (11-2, 7-0 Pac-12) won’t be celebrated, UW hopes it will be a launching point.

“It speaks volumes of our team,” said point guard Quade Green, who finished with 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. “Our team got it. We had a couple games where we got blown out by 30, but today the top team in the conference had their hands full with us. Everybody played hard. Everybody.”

The Huskies never stopped responding to UCLA, countering every punch. When the Bruins erased UW’s 10-point halftime lead in less than 4 minutes, UW didn’t let the game get out of reach. And when UCLA expanded its advantage to seven points, the Huskies got back-to-back 3-pointers from Hameir Wright and Marcus Tsohonis.

Even when UCLA pulled ahead by seven again late — grabbing a 77-70 lead with 1:34 left — the Huskies refused to wilt. Center Riley Sorn scored four straight points on a layup and two free throws. UW then forced a turnover at the other end. Down 77-74, the Huskies had the ball with 23 seconds left.

UW coach Mike Hopkins drew up a play for Green, one designed to give him the ball with a chance to curl to the basket for a quick two points. Wright was supposed to pop out to offer a chance at an open three if Green couldn’t get open. Instead, Erik Stevenson launched a deep 3 with 14 seconds left that bounced off the rim.

“We felt like if we were able to get to the basket it would have a chance to get a foul or get a bucket and then get into our press,” Hopkins said. “It didn’t work out that way. Erik got the ball. He felt like Quade wasn’t open and then he shot the three. He felt like he was going to make it. Sometimes that stuff happens.”

Said Green: “They blew the play up. We trust Erik with the ball. He made the play that he made, but he felt like he couldn’t make it. I never knew E to shoot a shot that he can’t make. They blew the play up and we had to find another option.”

The missed shot led to two Bruins’ free throws at the other end. Green responded with a quick layup, but UCLA was able to seal the victory at the foul line.

“We just took it on our shoulders that we ain’t going to be blown out by 30,” Green said. “That’s what it was. We’re going to give them a handful and that’s what happened today. We brought it down to the wire. Just making the right plays at the right time, that’s all it really was.”

While slow starts have been a near-constant for UW throughout the season, that wasn’t an issue against the Bruins. The Huskies jumped out to a 12-4 lead in the game’s first five minutes. They led nearly the entire first half, going into the break with a 10-point cushion after shooting 16-for-30 (53%) from the field.

But despite a strong first half defensively, UW allowed 52 points after the break and has now given up 80 or more points in six straight games. The Bruins shot 52% (14-of-28) from the field and 4-of-8 (50%) from three in the second half. UCLA also out-rebounded UW 41-30 for the game, including 15-4 on the offensive glass. The Bruins had 15 second-chance points.

“We put in a couple adaptions to our zone before the game,” Hopkins said. “We felt like it could really help us. It was one day in between and it helped us early. We’re new at it, at a couple of the changes. They were fortunate to make some shots out of it.

“I love how our kids fought. I love how there was two or three times when they went on really big runs and we were able to come right back. That showed that we’re getting more mentally tough. We’re becoming more mentally poised in tough situations, especially tonight. I felt like that was a good sign.”

UW had a team meeting in between the loss to USC and Saturday’s game. Adjusting with three transfers and many players taking on new roles, Hopkins said the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for the Huskies to build chemistry. The meeting gave players and coaches alike the chance to air their thoughts on the season, and perhaps move them a step closer to their first win since Dec. 9.

“We got some really good players, but we got to become that connected team where the ball is popping, less one-on-one, more belief in each other, more communication — all the things that you do that’s kind of limited to us with the COVID situation,” Hopkins said.

“It was just everybody and everybody was able to talk about all the things we believe we had to do. … Intimate conversations and the way that you get better is communication — on the court and off the court. I thought it was a positive step in the right direction.”

Green did, too. The unquestioned leader of this Huskies’ group, Green has also been the most consistent player. After the game, he offered his thoughts on the impact of Saturday’s performance.

“Everything starts today,” he said. “Everything starts today.”

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