Symbolism surrounded Lorenzo Romar as the Washington Huskies coach answered for another loss, this one encouraging in unfamiliar ways but still disheartening for what it could have been.
On the wall behind him, a rack of weight-lifting bars. In front of him, a rack of weights.
Washington was not tall enough to keep California from tipping and clutching and possessing offensive rebounds on Thursday night at Haas Pavilion. Can’t help that. But the Huskies weren’t strong enough, either, sometimes failing to keep Cal’s trio of big dudes off the glass even when they had them boxed out.
“They’re big and tall and long,” said UW forward Noah Dickerson. “Unless you get a running start and get a chance to push them out of there, it’s hard.”
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So they lost this Pac-12 road opener, 69-59, despite holding the Golden Bears under 40 percent shooting from the field, the kind of defensive effort for which the Huskies have been searching (and searching and searching). Problem was, UW had more trouble scoring than it has all season — Cal does rank eighth nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com — and an impatient offensive approach only compounded the problems created by Cal’s ownership of the backboards.
The offensive backboards, anyway. UW commendably attacked the offensive glass, too, finishing with 18 offensive rebounds, same as Cal. But the Bears scored 22 second-chance points, the Huskies managed only 10.
It probably didn’t help that UW played without starting forward Malik Dime, a 6-foot-9 rim protector who broke his right pinky finger last week and will miss the next four or five weeks.
“We’d get a stop,” Romar said, “have the ball in our hand, not quite come up with the basketball, and they would score on it.”
Ivan Rabb was particularly good at that, leading all scorers with 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, seven each on the offensive and defensive ends. Seven-foot center Kingsley Okoroh grabbed nine rebounds, three on offense. Fellow 7-footer Kameron Rooks played 12 minutes but pulled five rebounds, two on the offensive end.
“They’ve got two 7-footers down there, and they’re not skinny,” said UW guard David Crisp, who kept the Huskies in the game by making four 3-pointers and led his team with 16 points. “They have some meat on ’em. If you didn’t push them out, they were getting their hands on every ball that came off the rim, or grabbing it, and second-chance points just killed us.”
Still, it wasn’t all bad. UW trailed 34-28 at halftime, then took the lead at 40-38 following a 12-0 run. And after Cal (12-5, 3-2 in Pac-12) pushed ahead 51-45, Crisp made 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to trim it to 53-51, then drove for a layup to cut Cal’s lead to 59-57 with 4:35 to play.
But the Huskies (8-8, 1-3) scored one more basket after that, a layup by Dickerson nearly three minutes later, and that drought helped illustrate why UW shot only 35.5 percent from the field.
They forced too much against the Bears’ unforgiving defense, settling for shots too early, failing to reverse the ball to create driving lanes. Star freshman Markelle Fultz had his worst offensive game of the season, making 3 of 15 shots from the field and 6 of 10 from the free-throw line to finish with 12 points.
“Not one time did the shot clock get under 10 when we had the basketball, and it’s something we’ve preached for three or four days with our team, that you have to get the ball from side to side,” Romar said. “If you try to jam it down their throat, they’re just too big and too good defensively, and they’re going to be camped out in that paint.”
Dickerson scored 13 points and had nine rebounds. Matisse Thybulle scored 11 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Reserve forward Matthew Atewe made his most significant contribution of the season, playing 24 minutes with five points, four rebounds and four blocked shots before fouling out.
This was not a clunker. The Huskies came ready to play, and looked more disciplined and committed to playing defense than usual. But it was a regretful night all the same: If they’d grabbed a few more rebounds, if they’d moved the ball a little more, if they hadn’t missed the front end of two one-and-ones …
“We came out and played really well,” Crisp said. “Just a couple more possessions, if we could have got some more of those loose balls, more of those rebounds, the game could have been a lot different.”
In some ways, it was. But in the most important way, it wasn’t, another blemish tossed upon an accumulating heap of frustration.
Game in review
Player of the game: Ivan Rabb, the Pac-12’s leading rebounder, led all scorers with 20 points on 7-of-14 shooting and 14 boards — seven offensive, seven defensive — and a handful of tip-ins and putbacks. He scored 16 of his points in the second half, including eight in the final 6:10 to help the Bears put the game away.
Play of the game: With Cal leading 59-57, Don Coleman drove to the rim, was fouled by David Crisp and had to leave the game after a hard fall. Deep reserve Stephen Domingo, a 28.6 percent free-throw shooter, stepped in and made a pair to put the Bears up by two possessions, and the Huskies scored only one more basket the rest of the game.
Stat of the game: Both teams finished with 18 offensive rebounds … but Cal turned its second chances into 22 points, while the Huskies had only 10.
Quotable: “We competed, and I thought we guarded. If we would have come up with the ball the first time, the outcome would have been different, obviously.” — UW coach Lorenzo Romar
What it means: It’s a frustrating loss considering how close Washington played Cal throughout the second half, but the Huskies said afterward they were encouraged by their defensive effort and seemed to think they had proved something to themselves in that area. Still, it was a loss in a game they could have won, and those opportunities might be few and far between this season.
Up next: Washington at Stanford, 5 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network.
Christian Caple: email@example.com