The comeback was admirable. No doubt. The Washington Huskies trailed Stanford by 21 points early in the second half of their most recent, maddening defeat, but summoned the desire and competence necessary to tie the score with a little more than four minutes remaining, and hey, you probably didn’t see that coming at halftime.
Because the first half was so, so bad. And it was the reason that UW’s furious scramble in the final 20 minutes — minus the final four — still wasn’t enough to claim victory Saturday against a Cardinal team that it certainly could have beaten.
Instead, Stanford held on for a 76-69 victory before a meager crowd of 3,673 at Maples Pavilion, outscoring the Huskies 13-6 in the final four minutes after David Crisp’s 3-pointer tied the game at 63-63 with 4:15 to play.
The Huskies, losers of four of their first five Pac-12 games, proved the hackneyed axiom true: teams that have to spend so much energy erasing such a large deficit often wilt in the final minutes. That’s what happened here, as the Huskies allowed Stanford forward Michael Humphrey to score eight of his team-high 18 points in the final 3:36, including an and-one basket to answer Crisp’s make and an easy dunk that pushed the lead to two possessions.
“I was proud of our team because of how we scraped and scrapped our way back into it and gave ourselves a chance to win,” said embattled UW coach Lorenzo Romar, choosing, as always, to focus on the positives. “The frustrating part is knowing that we came out flat in the first half and dug ourselves such a hole, such a deficit.”
How flat? The Huskies (8-9, 1-4 Pac-12) trailed 43-24 at halftime after making only nine field goals and committing eight turnovers. Stanford (10-8, 2-4) ended that period on a 22-7 run and shot 60 percent from the field, a shockingly high mark for a team that ranks dead last in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage.
Marcus Allen blew past UW guards for easy layups. Humphrey made open jumpers. The Huskies again forced too many shots, settled for too many jumpers, threw lazy passes and looked nothing like a team capable of winning this game.
Well, most of the team did, anyway. Freshman guard Markelle Fultz was again outstanding, scoring 25 of his game-high 34 points in the second half to lead UW’s comeback attempt.
It happened quickly. The Huskies scored eight of the half’s first 10 points, and cut Stanford’s lead to single-digits with 12:26 still left in the game. Fultz drove and scored to cut the margin to seven. He attacked the rim with greater consistency — an easier task with Stanford forward Reid Travis sidelined by yet another injury — and found open teammates when necessary.
Dominic Green made a big 3-pointer from the corner on a Fultz assist to cut Stanford’s lead to 62-60. Fultz assisted on Crisp’s tying 3-pointer, too. The Huskies fouled a bunch in the second half, and that hurt — starting forward Noah Dickerson committed three fouls in the first half, played only 17 minutes and scored only three points — but they looked far more like a team that actually wanted to win.
So what was that first half all about?
“I don’t know,” said Fultz, who remains upbeat despite this tailspin. “It was a mental breakdown, it was something. Something happened where we weren’t locked in all the way, we weren’t executing the scout, we weren’t doing what we had to do to win this basketball game, and it hurt us in the second half.”
Romar had praised the Huskies for the way they approached their last game, a 69-59 loss at California that still featured one of UW’s most cohesive defensive performances of the season.
This wasn’t that, though UW held the Cardinal to just 7-for-24 shooting in the second half. But two of those field goals — both by Humphrey — came after the Huskies had tied the score, part of an 11-0 run that put the game out of reach. A pair of meaningless 3-pointers by Fultz in the final 16.2 seconds represented UW’s only offense after Crisp’s big shot with 4:15 to play.
“We were just a step slow in closing out, we were a step slow in keeping them in front of us,” Romar said of the first half. “They got to the basket on us. Just a few miscues out there that wasn’t the case in the Cal game. We were almost flawless in terms of execution defensively and what we were trying to do for the most part, but that wasn’t the case here today.”
So they head back to Seattle for a homestand against Colorado and Utah hoping that they left whatever caused their first-half malaise in the Bay Area.
“We know what we did,” Romar said. “If we could have it back some kind of way, maybe it would be different, our mindset. But our guys know. We obviously will remind them when we’re at practice on Monday, but this group of guys I think will bounce back, because we know what we did here today.”
In the first half, it was more about what they didn’t.
Game in review
Player of the game: Despite the outcome, nobody played better than UW guard Markelle Fultz, who scored 34 points with a team-high seven rebounds and three assists. He led UW’s furious comeback to get back into the game, and was one of only two Huskies players who scored in double figures.
Play of the game: After David Crisp tied the score at 63-63 with a 3-pointer, Stanford forward Michael Humphrey scored inside, was fouled and made the ensuing free throw to give the Cardinal a 66-63 lead with 3:36 to play. The Huskies didn’t score again until they trailed by 11 points, by which point the game was essentially over.
Stat of the game: Stanford shot 60 percent in the first half, and the Huskies shot only 33.3 percent with eight turnovers. The result: a 43-24 halftime lead for Stanford.
Quotable: “We were just trying to figure out what we have to do to play the whole game like that second half. I was surprised we came out that way but I know we’ve got a team that’s full of fighters, and we’re going to learn from that and it’s going to start improving.” — UW guard Markelle Fultz.
What it means: It is somewhat confounding that UW looked so flat and lifeless in the first half, considering Stanford is one of a handful of teams in the Pac-12 this season that the Huskies should be able to beat. The comeback was fine and all, but it wouldn’t have been necessary if UW had showed up in the first 20 minutes. That it didn’t is concerning.
Up next: Washington vs. Colorado, 8 p.m. Wednesday (ESPNU)