So dismal are the current circumstances surrounding the Washington Huskies men’s basketball team that its coach, Lorenzo Romar, is focusing on helping his players rediscover hope.
Not hope of playing in the NCAA tournament, a goal now all but unattainable. Not hope of finishing with a winning Pac-12 record, now a mathematical impossibility. But simply hope of winning a game, any game, before their current losing streak consumes what’s left of this miserable, ill-fated season.
“With three weeks left,” Romar said, “(and) five games left on our schedule, we have to make sure that we can find where that hope is.”
That won’t be a fun search. The count of consecutive UW losses is now at seven after Arizona State slashed and rebounded its way to a 78-68 victory Sunday afternoon at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, where an announced crowd of 6,745 (yeah, right) watched the Sun Devils collect 18 offensive rebounds and score 42 points in the paint.
Those numbers are alarming and unsurprising all at once. Washington is down two post players — 7-foot center Robert Upshaw, whom Romar dismissed from the team Jan. 26, and injured 6-10 forward Jernard Jarreau, who is expected back next week — and its interior defense and ability to box out have suffered as a result.
So there was Gerry Blakes, ASU’s leading scorer, mixing successful drives with deft jumpers. He scored a game-high 23 points.
And there was 6-6 forward Savon Goodman, whom the Huskies simply could not handle, collecting 13 rebounds — seven off ASU misses — and scoring 19 points.
“Some of the things that are happening,” Romar said, “are unacceptable.”
Overall, ASU (13-12, 5-7 Pac-12) outrebounded the Huskies, 44-26, and shot 49.1 percent from the field compared to 37.9 percent for UW (14-11, 3-10), which started the season 11-0.
“We’ve got to find our man when the ball goes up,” said senior forward Shawn Kemp Jr., who grabbed a season-best eight rebounds. “We’ve got to see who our man is, we’ve got to box out and go to the ball.”
Still, Washington led, 60-55, with 7 minutes, 42 seconds to play after Nigel Williams-Goss scored, was fouled and made the ensuing free throw.
On this day, that was as good as the Huskies had it. Blakes immediately drove to the rim and scored. Twenty-six seconds later, he tied the score with a 3-pointer from the left corner. And after UW junior guard Andrew Andrews made a pull-up jumper, Blakes drew a foul and made a pair of free throws, then assisted on a 3-pointer by former Kentridge High School star Shaquielle McKissic, and Washington didn’t lead again.
After that 60-55 deficit, ASU ended the game on a 23-8 run. UW’s only field goal in the final 4:49 was a meaningless bucket by Williams-Goss with 29 seconds remaining.
Earlier this season, when the Huskies were winning and Upshaw was swatting shots and hope of the postseason very much existed, Romar proclaimed that after three seasons without an NCAA tournament appearance, “guys don’t want to be mediocre anymore.”
They not only believed they could win, Romar said, they didn’t believe they could lose.
“I’ve been in situations where teams kept winning and you just really feel like you can’t lose,” Romar said, “but then other situations, where it’s almost like an alarm goes off, ‘Here it is. Here’s the crossroads in the game. Here’s the time where you’re going to win it or lose it.’
“The alarm goes off. And sometimes teams don’t answer that alarm.”
It’s been ringing since Jan. 22, when UW beat Colorado on a last-second jumper by Andrews. By the time the Huskies play again — Sunday at Washington State — an entire month will separate them from their previous victory.
“This is adversity, no question about it,” said Williams-Goss, who led UW with 20 points and six assists. “But at the end of the day, it’s only going to make all of us stronger. This season, as bad as it hurts, it’s not breaking us as people or as players.”
It’s also not over.
“It’s a chicken before the egg deal,” Romar said. “We’ve got to win to start believing we can win again.”
He said the Huskies will take Monday and Tuesday off because they play only one game this week.
When they return to practice Wednesday, “we have to have a certain amount of humility to know that unless we’re all focused and all there, it’s hard to win games,” Romar said.
Harder than they could have imagined.