Lorenzo Romar grabbed the microphone, his eyes welling with moisture, most of the near-capacity crowd of 9,482 already gone from Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
The Washington Huskies were not supposed to win Saturday’s game against No. 5 Arizona, and they didn’t. They tried. They really, truly tried, playing defense with a fervor not yet seen from this team during this miserable season, and so they had a chance to win this home finale before losing, 76-68, their ninth consecutive defeat.
Still, Romar knew there were thanks to distribute to a fan base that has continued to show up at Hec Ed despite the worst season of the coach’s 15-year UW tenure. So he grabbed the mic and asked for everyone’s attention.
“This has obviously been a difficult season for us all,” Romar said to the couple thousand who remained. “But the fact that you still came out here tonight and cheered us on, we appreciate it. Thank you.”
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This one hurt. You could hear it in Romar’s voice, and you could see it on the face of star guard and likely NBA draft-entrant Markelle Fultz, the typically stoic freshman who held back tears as he spoke with reporters afterward, his 26-point performance going for naught in what was almost certainly his final home game, too.
“Just knowing the way we played and the way we came to practice this week,” Fultz said, “everything we put forth, just the effort and everything … we really wanted it.”
It was senior night, which meant a ceremony honoring the team’s lone fourth-year player: forward Malik Dime, who hadn’t played since Jan. 7, due first to a broken pinky finger, then to a two-game suspension for slapping a fan last week at Colorado.
Romar lifted the suspension so Dime could play in his home finale. His presence — four blocked shots in 20 minutes — seemed to give the struggling Huskies a spark. The first half felt like old times, Arizona and Washington trading blows in front of a packed house. The Wildcats led by eight points, at 17-9, before a pair of Noah Dickerson baskets, a 3-pointer by Matisse Thybulle and a wide-open layup by Dime cut it to 20-18.
The Wildcats (25-3, 14-1 Pac-12), playing without injured starters Kadeem Allen and Dusan Ristic, later led by seven points, at 33-26, before the Huskies scored seven unanswered points in the span of a minute to pull even at 33-33. In the half’s final seconds, Fultz pulled up and splashed a long 3-pointer, achieving a 42-42 halftime tie and sending the near-sellout crowd into a frenzy of hope.
That feeling lasted throughout the game, even if the finish felt frustratingly familiar. After Arizona surged into a 69-60 advantage with 6:06 to play — its largest lead of the second half — the Huskies shot back with a 6-0 run, Fultz rimming in a 3-pointer before making a free throw to cut the deficit to 69-66.
But just like in a few other defeats this season, the Huskies offense disappeared in the final minutes. They scored three points in the final 4:41 and did not make a field goal in that span, wasting what might have been their best defensive effort of the season. Arizona shot only 42.6 percent from the field, but scored 23 points off UW’s 16 turnovers, and turned 14 offensive rebounds into 17 second-chance points.
“Aside from that, I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Romar said. “We competed and we tried to play the right way, and that’s all we ask for. Just hate to see us not be rewarded with that type of effort.”
The most harmful blow came after a rare miss by Arizona freshman Lauri Markkanen, who led the Wildcats with 26 points. He missed a 3-point attempt with just under a minute remaining and Arizona leading 71-68. But the rebound deflected straight to Arizona forward Chance Comanche, who gladly snagged it and crushed a two-handed dunk over Dime to make it a two-possession game.
That was after UW freshman Carlos Johnson was whistled for a questionable charging call, one that had Romar resisting the temptation to rip the jacket from his back. A few minutes prior, Dickerson was called for a blocking foul when Arizona guard Allonzo Trier appeared to extend his forearm into the UW forward’s chest — “he ducked his shoulder,” Dickerson said afterward — and the Huskies wound up on the wrong end of an iffy charge call against Fultz.
“There were a couple opportunities that were there,” Romar said, “a couple calls could have gone either way, and they didn’t go our way, and we got the short end of the stick on it. But we were right there.”
Instead, the Huskies tied a school record with their ninth consecutive loss, and they dipped to nine games below .500 (9-18, 2-13) for the first time in Romar’s career.
This one seemed to sting a little more than the others.
“We’re right there,” Fultz said. “Right there.”
“We were right there,” Dickerson echoed. “That’s all I thought. We were right there. We get a rebound, or a shot goes in … we were right there. Just came up short. But we played hard. Everybody played hard. I think we did what we had to, and we just came up a little bit short.”
Game in review
Player of the game: Lauri Markkanen tortured the Huskies from start to finish, scoring a team-high 26 points to go with 13 rebounds in 35 minutes. The 7-foot freshman shot 9 of 17 from the field and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.
Play of the game: With just under a minute remaining and UW trailing by three points, Markkanen missed a 3-pointer … and the rebound bounced right to UA forward Chance Comanche, who dunked on Malik Dime to give the Wildcats a five-point lead with 53 seconds to play.
Stat of the game: The Huskies scored three points, and did not make a field goal, in the game’s final 4:41.
What it means: The Wildcats were missing two starters — guard Kadeem Allen and center Dusan Ristic — but this was still one of UW’s better performances this season. The Huskies played tenacious, effective defense, and seemed to have proper energy from the start. But they wilted down the stretch yet again, a result that felt somewhat inevitable despite the competitive environment.
Quotable: “We can’t, at this point, reverse the season and do anything about our season. But we can get better and continue to work. It’s a testament to our young guys to come out here and play the way they did. It’s a testament to our supporters to come out here and almost fill the place up, give us a big lift tonight. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t be prouder of our team and our supporters.” — UW coach Lorenzo Romar
Up next: Washington at Washington State, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 26, ESPNU.
Christian Caple: firstname.lastname@example.org