They led by 10 points early in the first half, but you knew it wouldn’t last, because it never does.
They trailed by six points at halftime, and by three with 12 minutes remaining, hanging around and hanging around, yet never truly threatening to do what they have not done in 45 days and counting.
The Washington Huskies don’t win basketball games anymore. And though coach Lorenzo Romar saw better effort during this inevitable 74-58 defeat to USC on Saturday afternoon at the Galen Center, it was still a loss, their 12th in a row, a school record and then some.
This one carries a pair of other unfortunate distinctions: it was the Huskies’ 14th consecutive Pac-12 road loss, which sets a school record. And it concluded the worst conference season in school history, UW finishing with a 2-16 mark in league play for the first time since the conference initiated an 18-game schedule in 1978-79.
No UW team had ever completed a season with fewer than three league victories — until Saturday, when the Huskies again played without star guard Markelle Fultz, who is still out with a sore knee and is unlikely to play in UW’s Pac-12 tournament opener against USC on Wednesday.
So the Huskies committed 16 turnovers, allowed a bunch of layups and dunks, and watched the Trojans slowly push their second-half lead into double-digits, the Huskies managing only one field goal in the game’s final 5:39.
Wash, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat. Just about the only consolation for the Huskies now is that they won’t finish in last place; Oregon State, at 1-17, owns that position by itself.
But 2-16 is still 2-16.
“No way I thought that would happen,” Romar said. “You start to lose a few and just like when you win a few, (you) get on a roll. Unfortunately, we got on a roll downhill. I don’t think anyone’s proud of it.”
UW (9-20, 2-16 Pac-12) at least didn’t embarrass itself this time. The Huskies staked a 14-4 lead in the first four-plus minutes, sophomore forward Noah Dickerson scoring nine of his career-high 27 points during that span.
Without Fultz, Romar said, “we need to get points from somewhere,” so they went to Dickerson early and often. He shot 10-of-15 from the field and 7-of-12 from the free-throw line in 37 minutes.
“The first play for me was to get a touch inside, and after that it was rolling and they just kept feeding me,” Dickerson said. “If I needed to, I passed the ball out for open shots. I did what I had to do.”
When sophomore guard Matisse Thybulle made his third 3-pointer of the first half, the Huskies led, 30-24, with 5:21 remaining until halftime. They were in the game in spite of Fultz’s absence, and despite the fact that sophomore guard David Crisp — the team’s second-leading scorer — had spent nearly 10 minutes of the first half on the bench due to foul trouble.
That made it even harder to take care of the ball, though Crisp himself committed four turnovers and scored zero points in 18 minutes. USC turned UW’s nine first-half turnovers into 13 points, and held the Huskies without a field goal in the final 5:21 before halftime.
“We just didn’t have a lot of ball-handlers out there,” Romar said, “even down the stretch.”
The Trojans (23-8, 10-8) ripped off a 15-3 run to close the half and lead 39-33 at intermission.
The Huskies twice pulled within three points in the second half, and Thybulle’s fifth 3-pointer cut USC’s lead to 59-54 with 5:39 to play. But UW couldn’t get enough stops for it to matter. Trojans point guard Jordan McLaughlin abused the Huskies on simple ball screens, driving for easy layups and finishing with a team-best 22 points and nine assists. Chimezie Metu, USC’s 6-foot-11 highlight machine, dunked four times and finished with 17 points.
“Their pick and roll, the help-side man was never there,” Dickerson said. “So they got a lot of easy layups, easy dunks and things like that.”
So USC outscored UW 15-4 in the final 5:14, the Huskies making only one field goal in that span while shooting just 2-for-8 from the free-throw line. They made 11-of-21 from the foul line, total, and shot 42.0 percent from the field with 16 turnovers. Thybulle finished with 19 points, one shy of his career high. He combined with Dickerson to shoot 16-of-25 from the field. The rest of the Huskies managed only 12 points on 5-of-25 shooting.
USC shot 58.7 percent from the field and 16-of-20 from the free-throw line.
Now, the Huskies prepare for Wednesday’s rematch — USC is the No. 6 seed in the single-elimination Pac-12 tournament, and UW is No. 11 — still desperate for a victory to snap this historic skid.
“I mean, it’s different,” Dickerson said of UW’s dubious league record. “Nobody ever thinks of themselves losing. Of course I didn’t, especially coming out of high school. But everything is a learning experience, and we still have a couple games left to turn it around.”
If the past 45 days are any indication, they have one game left, and no more.
Game in review
Player of the game: USC point guard Jordan McLaughlin was effective all night running the pick and roll, attacking the hoop for a team-best 22 points and nine assists in 37 minutes. He shot 8-of-11 from the field and made all four of his free-throw attempts.
Play of the game: With the game already put away, USC subbed in seldom-used senior Samer Dhillon, who was one of two Trojans seniors playing his final home game. Dhillon launched a 3-pointer from the corner and made it with 29.3 seconds remaining, sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
Stat of the game: Yet again, the Huskies had trouble taking care of the ball against the Trojans. They committed 16 turnovers and USC turned the takeaways into 18 points.
What it means: The Huskies finished the 2016-17 regular season with fewer league victories than any UW team that has ever played an 18-game conference schedule. And they’ve now lost 12 consecutive games.
Quotable: “We were on the road playing them without, over half the game, two of our better guards, and we were able to do a pretty good job. So we have to go back and make the adjustments. But the effort that we had, the way we played, the way we went about our business, we can take that with us and understand we just have to do a better job of finishing.” — UW coach Lorenzo Romar
Up next: Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, Washington vs. USC, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Pac-12 Network.