NEW YORK – Perhaps it was fitting that the Washington Huskies’ season ended this way – a lethargic start, a furious comeback and a disappointing loss.
After all, those were constant themes throughout the season – particularly the slow starts.
Washington’s run in the National Invitation Tournament ended with a 68-67 overtime loss to the Minnesota Gophers on Tuesday.
But the Huskies essentially lost the game in a frustrating first half when Washington (24-11) looked sluggish on defense, stagnant on offense and timid when it came to physical play.
You can list the losses – Duke, South Dakota State, California, Oregon – where the Huskies played that way.
But coach Lorenzo Romar was quick to mention the most frustrating loss of all.
“It was a little like when we played against Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament opening game,” Romar said.
Ah yes, that game. The game that was a major reason Washington was playing in the NIT and not the NCAA tournament. The game that best summed up the Huskies’ season.
Surely, it couldn’t happen again.
But it did. Minnesota dominated the Huskies in the first half, comfortably leading at halftime, 38-26.
The Gophers (23-14) did pretty much what they wanted offensively and defensively. Minnesota shot 16-for-31 from the field in the first half. Of those 16 field goals, 10 were assisted baskets. Of those 16 field goals, seven were dunks and three were layups.
Defensively, Minnesota played a physical man-to-man defense, bumping Huskies cutters, challenging every pass and using hands and bodies to push around UW players.
“We like our physicality,” freshman point guard Andre Hollins said. “We kind of made their offense a little stagnant.”
Romar expected that from the Golden Gophers.
“We played against a team that was pretty predictable,” he said. “They were going to be predictable in that they were going to play tough, hard-nosed defense. They were going to play a scrappy brand of basketball. You knew they were going to bring it.”
The Gophers brought it in the first half. And the Huskies didn’t handle it well.
If it weren’t for Terrence Ross, the game might have been a rout. The sophomore shooting guard kept Washington in it, looking comfortable in an NBA arena – a place where he will likely be playing next season.
When everything was going wrong early, Ross scored 12 of Washington’s first 18 points.
“He was very important, like so many times this year,” Romar said. “Terrence played his heart out tonight.”
Darnell Gant’s 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer made it look a little better and give the Huskies a modicum of hope.
“We needed something to fuel us,” Gant said. “But what we needed to do is just guard. We did a poor job in the first half. That really took us out of our rhythm. When we weren’t playing defense, everything gets cluttered.”
In the second half, it was a decidedly different Washington team that stepped on the floor.
There was a sense of urgency on defense. There was aggressiveness on offense. The Huskies got to loose balls. Most important, when Minnesota tried to get physical, Washington finally pushed back.
“We started to guard,” Romar said. “We played better defense the beginning of that second half. That was the difference.”
But even with a different mindset, the Huskies’ comeback wasn’t a given. The Gophers weren’t going to give the game away with a bunch of missed free throws and poor shots.
Washington had to take it back. The Huskies cut the 10-point lead to seven, then five, then three, but each time Minnesota answered. It wasn’t until the final minute of regulation when the Huskies looked like they might pull it out.
Ross’ 3-pointer from the wing with 56 seconds left cut the deficit to 59-57.
Washington dug in to try and get one big defensive stop, but Tony Wroten fouled Hollins with the shot clocking winding down.
Hollins made both free throws to push the lead back to four points. The Huskies answered with a pair of Abdul Gaddy free throws.
Then, despite coach Tubby Smith calling a timeout to set up the play, Minnesota’s Joe Coleman inexplicably turned it over against Washington’s pressure in the backcourt.
“We drew up a play to get the ball in and keep me running,” Hollins said. “Joe got the ball and shuffled it and it came a little fast. I should have caught it.”
C.J. Wilcox picked up the loose ball in front of the Huskies basket and rolled in a leaner to tie the game at 61.
Hollins tried to win the game for Minnesota in regulation, but his jump shot came up short. Washington got a halfcourt heave from Wroten as the buzzer sounded, but it was off.
“Any time you’re fighting back, it’s always tough,” Romar said. “But in the second half, I thought we were a team.”
In the overtime, Hollins converted a three-point play and the Huskies never recovered.
A bad missed shot and a turnover forced UW to play from behind. Down 68-65, Wilcox got an open look on a 3-pointer with 8 seconds left, but it rattled out. Gant scored on a putback with 3.5 seconds left.
The Huskies fouled Hollins, and he missed both free throws. But Gaddy’s three-quarter court shot came up well short.
Hollins finished with 20 points and scored five of Minnesota’s seven points in OT.
“A turnover, difficult shot and then to have a couple of defensive lapses,” Romar said, trying to explain what went wrong in overtime. “It always comes back to defense.”
Minnesota will play for the NIT title despite losing six consecutive games late in the regular season.
“We had a tough stretch toward the end of the regular season, but everybody stayed together and everybody is on the same page,” said Rodney Williams, who had 18 points for the Gophers. “Once we got that loss in the Big Ten tournament, we kind of just came together and said, ‘If we get into a postseason tournament, we are going to play our hearts out.’ And that’s what we are doing now.”
Stanford 74, Massachusetts 64: Anthony Brown scored a season-high 18 points and Josh Owens had 15 points and 12 rebounds as the third-seeded Cardinal (25-11) beat the fifth-seeded Minutemen (25-12) in the other NIT semifinal.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.