For 39 minutes, the Washington Huskies played their best basketball of the season. They took care of the basketball, played aggressive but intelligent defense, made three-point shots, and hustled for rebounds and loose balls. They had the legendary Tar Heels of North Carolina, well, on their heels. They were primed to breakthrough to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year. But in the final minute, the Huskies choked like George W. Bush on a pretzel. They committed foolish turnovers, mismanaged the clock, and lost a game they should have won. And it's fitting, really, for an inconsistent team that had seemingly endless potential to finish this way.
Seven-foot center Aziz N'Diaye took it to the Tar Heels' talented front line on defense, snagged 11 rebounds, and, to everyone's surprise, finished authoritatively at the rim with a pair of dunks. Terrence "The Boss" Ross appeared yet again to be the best athlete on the floor, singlehandedly outscoring the opponents' entire bench with 19 points. Darnell Gant, Justin Holiday, C.J. Wilcox, Scott Suggs, and other key role players played their parts almost flawlessly.
Almost. That's the key word. But after Suggs drained a 3-point shot with 17 seconds left to get the Huskies within one point, almost was not nearly enough. After a missed Carolina free throw the Huskies had the ball, down by one, with seven seconds left to play. That's when this year's UW team--the one fans learned to love and hate--revealed its true self once and for all.
Holiday was careless with the inbounds pass, and it was deflected away for a turnover. Then, down by three with five seconds remaining, Venoy Overton rushed a half-court heave. It was an airball. Both he and coach Lorenzo Romar later said they were hoping Overton would draw a foul and he'd get three shots to tie the game. Overton, though, is a 65 percent free-throw shooter. The strategy, if that really was it, makes no sense.
Had Overton somehow connected with his half-court Hail Mary, or made the foul shots to send the game to overtime, he could have partially redeemed himself in the eyes of Husky faithful for his infamous off-court impropriety. But even he wanted no part of the crucial end-of-game play. Overton told the Tacoma News Tribune after the game: "Really it would have been better if It would have been still on the bench where I was most of the game and let somebody else make that decision. But it's a decision that happened and the team is going to move on, they're going to be great next year."
Next year. Though this season has to be considered an overall success--salvaged by a thrilling Pac-10 tournament championship run--it still seems like another year of waiting for next year.
As long as Thomas returns for his senior year (and all signs point to that being the case), the Huskies should be fine. Although they lose Matthew Bryan-Amaning and his 15 points and eight rebounds on the interior, his butterfingers and frying-pan hands will not be sorely missed. With a streak-shooting core of Suggs, Wilcox, and Ross, combined with N'Diaye and Gant in the frontcourt and the unlimited potential of Garfield's Tony Wroten, the Huskies should once again compete for a Pac-10 Championship. As yesterday's foul-plagued game proves, they probably need another forward/center to have any chance at deep NCAA tournament run. The talent, however, is there.
But whether Romar can harness that talent and keep his players focused for an entire season--or, more critically, for an entire postseason--remains to be seen.