Markelle Fultz returned for the Washington Huskies on Thursday night, the star freshman guard back in the starting lineup after a two-game absence due to a sore knee.
As expected, the Huskies looked better with him on the court against Arizona State. As expected, his presence gave them a chance to win.
And as expected, they did not.
The Huskies led at halftime of this excruciating 83-81 loss to the Sun Devils before a crowd of 6,910 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. They led in the second half, too. But they failed in the decisive moments of a loss that sends them to a depth never experienced by any of coach Lorenzo Romar’s previous 14 UW teams.
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They have now lost eight games in a row. No Romar team has ever done that. And they are now 9-17 overall, eight games below .500 for the first time since Romar took over as coach prior to the 2002-03 season. And at 2-12 in league play, the Huskies must win three of their final four Pac-12 games to avoid posting the worst conference record of Romar’s tenure.
Washington had a chance to tie the game, facing a three-point deficit with possession of the ball inside the final 20 seconds. But Fultz missed on a driving 2-point attempt, ASU guard Tra Holder grabbed the rebound and UW freshman guard Carlos Johnson fouled him hard enough for the officials to call a Flagrant 1 foul. Holder also took a swipe at Johnson following the whistle, drawing a technical foul.
“I didn’t realize I grabbed him that hard,” said Johnson, who set career highs with 19 points and 12 rebounds. “The way I grabbed him, I shouldn’t have, but it’s just basketball. It’s just tough love.”
Holder made two free throws. Matisse Thybulle, shooting the technical for UW, made both free throws to cut the lead to 82-79. UW inbounded with 9.8 seconds left and Fultz launched a 3-pointer. He missed. Dan Kingma snagged the rebound and put it in the hoop with 2.0 seconds left, bringing UW within one point.
UW fouled ASU guard Torian Graham with 1.1 seconds to play. He made the first. ASU committed a lane violation on the second. And Fultz was able to launch a shot from halfcourt at the buzzer. But it missed off the front iron, and that was that.
“It had a legitimate chance,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He practices those shots all the time.”
Fultz started this game, spent nearly seven minutes on the bench in the first half, a conscious effort by Romar to keep him fresh – he played 30 minutes total – in response to his sore knee. With Fultz on the bench, ASU built a 30-15 lead, driving for easy baskets and ripping open looks from 3-point range.
The Huskies, meanwhile, missed four of their first five field-goal attempts and turned the ball over three times in that span, trailing 13-2 and 20-6 in the game’s first seven minutes.
When Fultz returned, with 7:32 remaining left in the first half, the Huskies trailed by 15 points and switched to a five-guard lineup against ASU’s similarly small squad. That change triggered a 26-9 run to close the half – and a 15-4 advantage in the final 4:35 – Fultz leading the way with 11 points in that span, including a straight-away 3-pointer, a driving layup in transition and a pair of free throws after stealing an outlet pass and drawing a foul. He finished the game with 19 points.
“After a rough start, I was really excited by how scrappy and how much heart our guys played with to come back and take the lead at halftime,” Romar said.
Johnson also scored seven points during the run, helping to bring the crowd back into it with hustle plays and strong moves to the rim. Kingma played significant minutes again, teaming with Fultz, Johnson, Dominic Green and David Crisp for much of the comeback.
The teams traded baskets for much of the second half. UW’s largest lead in the period was five points, after Johnson scored, was fouled and made the ensuing free throw to give the Huskies a 63-58 lead with 11:31 remaining. The freshman guard finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs, in the best game of his young career. Thybulle also had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.
But Graham continued to rise and fire his awkward-yet-effective jumper, leading the Sun Devils with 29 points, and ASU continued to take advantage of the Huskies’ turnovers, scoring 23 points off 15 takeaways.
“That was huge in this game,” Romar said.
ASU seemed to take control with an 8-2 run that included six points by forward Obinna Oleka – including dunks on consecutive possessions – and a driving layup by Graham to give the Sun Devils a 77-71 lead with 5:12 to play.
“We became impatient for whatever reason, and we would shoot too quickly,” Romar said. “Which is what we did not want to do. And not only did we not score but they would come down and get in the rhythm. Along with a few defensive breakdowns that should not have happened in the second half that’s the difference in the game right there.”
Crisp cut ASU’s lead to 80-77 on a corner 3-pointer with 1:08 to play, pulling the Huskies within one possession for the first time since six minutes remained in the game.
But once again, their opponent made the plays necessary to win in the game’s final seconds, and a better effort still yielded a loss.
With Fultz or without him, some things don’t change.
Game in review
Player of the game: ASU guard Torian Graham proved difficult for the Huskies to stop, as he scored a game-high 29 points on 12-of-23 shooting and 4-of-9 shooting from 3-point range. He played 39 minutes without a turnover.
Play of the game: After Matisse Thybulle made a pair of technical-foul free throws to cut ASU’s lead to 3, UW had a chance to tie with possession of the ball. But Markelle Fultz missed a 3-pointer, UW had to settle for a 2-point putback with 2.0 seconds to play, and it didn’t matter that Graham made only one of the ensuing free throws after being fouled.
Stat of the game: Washington committed 15 turnovers, and ASU turned those miscues into 23 points.
Quotable: “I guess it helps the team if they get fired up when I’m doing good. I just try to go out there and try to win the games, for real. I just want my boys to feel happy at the end of the game. I don’t want to go back to the locker room with an L.” – UW guard Carlos Johnson
What it means: This was probably the Huskies’ best remaining chance at a victory before the season ends, and they certainly gave themselves a chance to win it. Their slow start – down 20-6 in the first half – didn’t help. But there were winning plays to be made in the game’s final minutes, and ASU made most of them.
Up next: No. 5 Arizona at Washington, 5 p.m. Saturday, ESPN2.
Christian Caple: email@example.com