LAS VEGAS – You know what they say in Sin City: It ain’t over ’til the Elvis Impersonator sings.
A youthful version of The King performed at halftime at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, right about the time Washington’s men’s basketball team seemed doomed to a meek and ignominious exit from the Pac-12 tournament.
The Huskies were floundering, down 10 to Utah, getting outworked in a dire circumstance that begged for manic energy. C.J. Wilcox was uncharacteristically cold, Andrew Andrews was dragging from a bout with food poisoning, and the Utes were grabbing every loose rebound, winning every race down court.
To their credit, the Huskies regrouped and recharged.
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“We knew all we had was 20 minutes to go,’’ said freshman Nigel Williams-Goss. “All we had was 20 minutes to get to tomorrow. That’s all Coach had to say. We knew what was at stake, what was on the line. I think that’s why we came out with the energy we did.”
Led by Williams-Goss, who played like a point guard possessed, the Huskies were transformed in the second half. They held a 59-58 lead after a three-point play by Desmond Simmons with 1:23 to play, and visions of a miracle run into the NCAA tournament danced in their heads.
But as has happened all too often to a program struggling to regain its mojo, it wasn’t quite enough. The Huskies stumbled down the stretch and lost 67-61, a defeat that merely accelerates and accentuates the angst surrounding UW basketball.
Blue-chip recruits such as Terrence Jones, Aaron Gordon, and Zach LaVine, who could have had transformative impact, flirt with the Huskies, but cast their lot elsewhere. Potentially galvanizing wins slip out of their grasp, such as games this year against San Diego State and Arizona where they held late leads, only to falter.
Where once there was grandeur, now there is merely regretful rehashing of where it went off track. For the Huskies, disappointment is the new normal.
The NCAA tournament is now obviously out, for the third consecutive season. At 17-15, the Huskies are, in fact, no guarantee to be chosen for the unsatisfactory consolation prize, the NIT. A downcast Lorenzo Romar was asked afterward if he had any doubt the Huskies would participate in the postseason.
“Yes,’’ he replied. “We’re not sure.”
The Huskies will have a light workout Friday and Saturday, and “then we’ll wait and hear what the selection show says,’’ Romar said.
At this point, it seems, it’s NIT or bust, which is quite a comedown for a program that once was an NCAA staple. Huskies players say they would welcome the chance to keep playing, but it went unspoken that it’s a hollow fallback option.
“I just love to play the game,’’ shrugged Williams-Goss. “Whether it’s a regular-season game, postseason game, NCAA tournament, NIT tournament, I mean, it’s basketball. If we can go out and compete, hopefully we can do that.”
“I know for me, as well as the seniors, we want to keep going,’’ added Wilcox. “There is always experience for the younger guys to play more in the postseason and go into next year and get a little momentum.”
It’s all but over now for Wilcox, who brought his sweet stroke back for one final season in an unrequited bid to help restore Husky luster. Wednesday’s game offered a glimmer of hope for the future with strong efforts from two freshmen, Williams-Goss and Darin Johnson (16 points).
“I’m optimistic about our program,’’ Romar said.
He pointed to early injuries that put the Huskies in a hole they never quite dug out of – the season-ending knee surgery that struck Jernard Jarreau, a knee ailment that sidelined Simmons for the first 10 games, the Graves Disease diagnosis that weakened Shawn Kemp Jr. Because those three comprised most of the team’s heft, the damage was tangible.
“We’d never experienced that before,’’ Romar said. “That was challenging.”
The challenges are mounting for the Huskies, who keep watching their glorious past slip ever further into recession.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry