SEATTLE – Most everyone had already left Hec Edmundson Pavilion by the time Washington Huskies guard Mike Anderson emerged from the locker room, then took a seat on the first row of bleachers with his mother, his girlfriend, and their daughter.
Mya turns 1 year old on Monday. She lives with Anderson’s girlfriend, Bria, in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, so her presence at Saturday’s game against 13th-ranked Utah – senior day for Anderson and teammate Shawn Kemp Jr. – was a big deal.
Anderson wept as he held her during the pregame ceremony, using his warm-up jersey to wipe tears from his eyes. He knew this would be an emotional day. A few hours later, he was at ease as he watched and redirected Mya as she crawled across the Hec Ed hardwood, a touchingly simple father-daughter moment that capped one of the brightest days of Anderson’s UW career.
Mya, of course, won’t remember. But her dad won’t ever forget it.
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It was that kind of day for all of the Huskies, who seemingly packaged every bit of the savvy and focus that so frustratingly eluded them for so long into a single, unlikely victory against a bigger, stronger, more talented opponent.
It was Washington 77, Utah 68, the 13-point underdog Huskies overcoming injuries, a distinct lack of size and a three-game losing streak to win their final home game and make winners of Anderson and Kemp – who did not play due to a strained calf – in their final collegiate home game.
The Huskies (16-14, 5-13 in Pac-12) assured themselves of a final record above .500, and will face Stanford at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
And a certain level of dishonesty would be required of anyone who claims to have seen this coming. The Huskies (16-14, 5-13 in Pac-12) had lost 10 of their last 11 games, including an ugly 64-47 beating against so-so Colorado on Thursday night. They were playing without their strongest post player (Kemp), one of their better 3-point shooters (freshman Donaven Dorsey, who missed his second consecutive game with turf toe), and again played with just seven healthy scholarship players. Only two of them stand taller than 6-foot-7.
So how did the Huskies beat the same Utah (23-7, 13-5) team that blasted them 77-56 – with UW near full-strength – six weeks ago in Salt Lake City?
“Maybe the emotions of senior day,” coach Lorenzo Romar pondered. “I think our guys love Shawn and Mike. Maybe that was it. I think the opponent, Utah, I think our guys remember what happened when we went to Utah. I think our guys understood that if we didn’t come focused, we could lose by 40-50 points. We need to come focused. So you put all that together in the pot, and maybe that helps.”
It helped, too, that sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss played one of his better games this season, scoring a game-high 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting, grabbing six rebounds and sinking a 3-pointer that provided crucial separation in the final 70 seconds.
Anderson, who lamented earlier this week that he didn’t score more during his two-year career here, added 15 points thanks to a 3-for-3 effort beyond the 3-point arc. Andrew Andrews added 16 points, successfully bulling his way to the rim a few times to help the Huskies sustain a tenuous second-half lead. Jernard Jarreau, the 6-foot-10 junior forward playing in his fifth game since returning from meniscus surgery, scored a career-best 14 points and made three 3-pointers – prior to Saturday he’d made two, total, in his career – in 39 minutes.
Little-used center Gilles Dierickx, recently pressed into regular action, logged 31 minutes and grabbed six rebounds. Walk-on guard Dan Kingma, all 5-foot-10 and 155 pounds of him, played 13 minutes and scrambled all around the top of UW’s 2-3 zone that so frustrated the typically hot-shooting Utes.
Utah forward Jakob Poeltl took advantage of UW’s size disadvantage, scoring 18 points on 8-for-8 shooting. Delon Wright navigated the lane for a team-high 21 points. But that was fine with the Huskies. They were more concerned about contesting perimeter shots after Utah burned them for 11 3s back in January.
The Utes made just 5-of-19 from beyond the arc on Saturday. The Huskies hit 8-of-14, and shot 51 percent from the field – the highest clip allowed by Utah this season.
“Guys were really locked in, not making as many mental mistakes,” Williams-Goss said. “I know a lot of postgame interviews I’ve done, I’ve talked about the mental mistakes that we’ve made, and things that we could correct, and things that were in our control. And today, I felt like we did a good job not only executing the scout, but executing the scout for 40 minutes, and that’s big when you’re playing such a great team like Utah.”
Utah led 36-31 at halftime, and led 45-38 before the Huskies made their move. Anderson and Andrews keyed a 9-0 run to give UW a 47-45 lead midway through the second half, and the Huskies didn’t trail again.
Williams-Goss dropped in floaters. Andrews finished at the rim. Jarreau tossed in jumpers like he never has before. And the Huskies, despite playing zone the entire game, boxed out effectively enough to out-rebound Utah 28-23 – and 17-4 in the second half.
The clinching shot was probably Williams-Goss’ 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, the jumper he stepped into atop the key and buried to give the Huskies a 67-60 lead with 1:11 to go.
Free-throws followed. And they made all of them to seal their most improbable victory of the season.
“I just wanted to get the win,” Anderson said, “for the seniors, the team and Coach. Especially since it’s the last home game. Everybody wanted to get the win.”
It was a cathartic end to what turned into a disastrous regular season. If UW hadn’t pulled off this upset, it would have finished with the worst conference record of Romar’s 13-year tenure.
But for two hours on Saturday, the Huskies sidestepped their misery.
“I really am proud of our guys and commend them for being able to come back today and generate some energy and focus,” Romar said. “Hopefully, we’ll take that into the tournament.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME – Has to be UW point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who scored 28 points on 11-of-18 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, played 39 minutes and made a huge 3-pointer from the top of the key to push UW’s lead to seven points with a little more than a minute left in the game.
IT WAS OVER WHEN – Williams-Goss connected on a 3-pointer with the shot-clock winding down, giving the Huskies a 67-60 lead with 1:09 to play. Utes guard Brandon Taylor airballed a 3-point attempt out of bounds, and the Huskies iced it from there.
STAT OF THE GAME – The Huskies out-rebounded Utah 17-4 in the second half, and 28-23 overall.
QUOTABLE – “Not only did we send the seniors out the right way, (Mike Anderson) handled his business and he sent himself out the right way. I just couldn’t be more happy for him and the rest of the guys going into the Pac-12 tournament with this type of effort, getting the win, and Stanford will be a good test on Wednesday.” – Williams-Goss
WHAT IT MEANS – It’s been a trying season for the Huskies, who have been shorthanded, undersized and overmatched in many of their Pac-12 games. But in their regular-season finale, they proved they’re still capable of playing solid, focused basketball for 40 minutes against a quality opponent. There was no reason to believe UW could win this game. Somehow, it did, and for at least a little while, they’ve got something to feel good about.
UP NEXT – Pac-12 tournament, first round: Washington vs. Stanford, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas (Pac-12 Networks)
Christian Caple can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ChristianCaple