This was closer. And yet it will be remembered for not being close enough, another defeat in a season already defined by failure.
The Washington Huskies are playing better basketball, if incrementally. They showed it last week at Arizona, hanging with a top-10 team long enough to proclaim progress. And they were right there again on Wednesday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, achieving a double-digit halftime lead against a USC Trojans team that will likely play in the NCAA tournament.
All of which made the ensuing 82-74 defeat more painful before a blackout-themed crowd of 7,223. The loss relegates the Huskies to a 9-13 record and a 2-8 in Pac-12 play, and will carry a four-game losing streak into Saturday’s game against 11th-ranked UCLA.
Everything the Huskies did right in the first half while building a 37-27 lead came undone thereafter. USC shot 68 percent after halftime. Bennie Boatwright, playing for the first time in two months, led the Trojans with 23 points. UW committed 17 turnovers, nine in the second half. And the Trojans scored 23 of the game’s final 31 points, Washington’s offense disappearing while Boatwright and his teammates continued to find open looks. And more open looks.
UW coach Lorenzo Romar said Huskies players came out “extremely flat” in the second half, and yeah, they did. Which is baffling for a struggling team in decent position to win a game against a superior opponent.
“When we were in the locker room at halftime, I would say we were feeling pretty good about ourselves — too good,” Romar said. “We obviously didn’t understand that much more work was going to be required to come out on top.”
There was a period of offensive ineptitude in the first half, too, when USC led 27-22 and seemed able to deflect UW’s passes as it pleased. The Huskies didn’t score for four-plus minutes, languishing against the Trojans’ long-armed zone defense.
Then David Crisp made a 3-pointer, and Noah Dickerson scored inside. Crisp drove for a reverse layup. And Markelle Fultz, quiet offensively for much of the first half, made consecutive 3-pointers in the final 37 seconds, including one from the top of the key just four seconds before the buzzer to give UW a 10-point halftime lead.
UW ended the half on a 15-0 run, holding USC scoreless for the period’s final 5:39. The Trojans made 11 of their 36 field-goal attempts in that time, as the Huskies followed a relatively competent defensive game against Arizona with another more cohesive effort in their 2-3 zone.
Until the second half started, anyway.
USC made it first six field-goal attempts after halftime, and the Huskies began the period with four turnovers in four minutes. But they maintained their lead, thanks in part to Fultz, who made 4 of 8 from 3-point range.
USC (19-4, 6-4 in Pac-12), though, didn’t stop making shots. Boatwright, a sophomore forward, returned from injury to play in his first game since Nov. 30, and he dominated when on the court, making 7 of his 10 field goal attempts in 21 minutes. Foul trouble was the only thing preventing him from playing longer.
The Trojans attempted 25 field goals in the second half. They made 17 of them, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, as the Huskies were far less active in their zone.
“This dates back to last year,” Dickerson said of UW’s lax effort in the second half. “If I knew how it happened, I would change it. I don’t know how it happens. None of us do. They came out that second half and jumped on us and cut that lead down quick, and they had the momentum the rest of the game.”
UW took a seven-point lead on a Crisp 3-pointer, but USC trimmed the deficit to 66-63 with 5:43 remaining after Chimezie Metu scored and Jordan McLaughlin made two free throws.
Boatwright continued his reign. He grabbed an offensive board and scored. He scored inside again, drew a foul and made the free throw, then drove and found De’Anthony Melton for a jumper to put USC ahead 70-66 with 4:07 to play, an 11-0 run giving the Trojans their first lead of the second half. McLaughlin made it 13-0 with a transition layup following yet another Huskies turnover.
“I think we had turned the ball over so much, we were a little tentative out there,” Romar said. “We began to settle for just 3-point shots. That made the difference.”
Washington’s scoring drought finally ended when Sam Timmins followed a Fultz miss with a dunk, cutting USC’s lead to 72-68 with three minutes to play. UW guard Matisse Thybulle made a 3-pointer to cut it to 72-71, but the Huskies missed their next four shots, the Trojans made their free throws, and even Crisp’s three free throws with 25.1 seconds left did nothing to impact the outcome. USC never led by fewer than four points in the final 52 seconds.
Fultz led the Huskies with 20 points, plus six assists and five rebounds. Dickerson scored 17 points and had nine rebounds, Crisp scored 16 points and Thybulle had 12.
But once again, none of them stepped up when the moment called for it. Such a performance has eluded them all season.
“We just didn’t dig in and get grimy and make the plays that were necessary to win the game,” Romar said.
“We’ve had many, many close games,” Dickerson said, “and we just haven’t been able to get that game and take it from somebody.”
Until they finally tire of having it taken to them, that pattern will continue.
Game in review
Player of the game: No question it was USC forward Bennie Boatwright, who returned from a knee injury to lead his team with 23 points on 7-for-10 shooting in 21 minutes. Boatwright hadn’t played since Nov. 30, but the 6-10 sophomore looked plenty comfortable against UW’s soft zone defense. He was also 7 for 8 from the free-throw line.
Play of the game: With UW trailing 74-71 inside the final minute, guard Matisse Thybulle tried a 3-pointer but watched it lip out. Boatwright was fouled going after the rebound, made the ensuing free throws and the Huskies never came within a possession of tying the game after that.
Stat of the game: Pretty simple: USC made 17 of 25 from the field in the second half — a 68 percent clip — as UW failed to contest shots and gave up far too many easy baskets in its zone defense.
What it means: In some ways, the Huskies’ performance in this game was encouraging. USC is a good team with a bunch of good athletes, and UW led by 10 points at halftime and had a chance to win. Which makes it all the more puzzling that the Huskies would come out so flat after halftime, knowing how close they were to their best win of the season.
Quotable: “We became tentative. We settled. We weren’t determined to get the ball inside, to drive the ball inside. We weren’t determined to do it. We just settled.” — UW coach Lorenzo Romar
Up next: No. 11 UCLA at Washington, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Pac-12 Network.