From close losses early in the season to an inconsistent Pac-10 showing to this final jab of a near miss, the Huskies stood at the welcome mat of outstanding, only to retreat to disappointing at the end.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Venoy Overton expected a foul. In a season of unfulfilled UW expectations, it was a bad assumption.
Down three points with 5.4 seconds remaining, the Washington men’s basketball team needed a speedy guard with great decision-making to race downcourt and make a play. Shockingly, inexplicably, coach Lorenzo Romar chose Overton, not coldblooded Isaiah Thomas. What ensued was nothing short of a disaster that served as the signature play in an error-filled ending to a game, an NCAA tournament run and a season.
The Huskies had to go 94 feet, the length of the court. Romar put five guards on the floor. Overton’s challenge: Hustle and get the ball to a three-point shooter. And one more thing: Be mindful that North Carolina might foul rather than risk giving up a potential game-tying shot.
If Overton felt significant contact as he dribbled up the court, he wanted to throw the ball into the air and hope the referees would call a shooting foul. Then he would receive three free-throw attempts instead of two. Thomas reminded Overton of the trick as the Huskies returned to the floor.
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“Watch out for the foul!” Thomas exclaimed.
It turns out Overton was anticipating the foul too much.
He raced to his right and reached midcourt. Kendall Marshall, the North Carolina defender, leaned in to foul Overton but pulled back at the last millisecond. The move fooled Overton. The Washington senior, who is left-handed, threw the ball up prematurely with his right hand. It was an air ball, clearly. Precious seconds ticked down to disappointment. North Carolina forward John Henson tried to corral the feeble shot, but the ball slipped through his hands and out of bounds. Though it appeared the ball went out of bounds with 1.1 seconds left, the official didn’t whistle the play dead until 0.5 seconds remained.
The game was effectively over. Thomas missed a desperation fadeaway at the buzzer, and Henson seemingly committed goaltending on the attempt, but it wasn’t called. Even if it had been goaltending, Thomas’ shot was only a two-pointer.
Afterward, Overton sat in a room adjacent to the locker area, head down, frustration festering, college career over.
“It would’ve been better if I was still on the bench, where I was most of the game,” Overton said, shaking his head, after the 86-83 defeat.
And so a season that Romar had already proclaimed the toughest of his nine years at Washington ended with the Huskies falling just shy of excellence. It was sadly symmetrical.
From Terrence Jones’ indecisive recruiting debacle to Abdul Gaddy’s and Tyreese Breshers’ medical woes to Overton being charged with a gross misdemeanor, the season has been abnormally disheartening.
From close losses early in the season to an inconsistent Pac-10 showing to this final jab of a near miss, the Huskies stood at the welcome mat of outstanding, only to retreat back to disappointing at the end.
This loss was a 40-minute synopsis of their season. The biggest win of the program’s modern era lay within reach, delicate as can be. The Huskies needed only to guide a monumental victory carefully into possession in the closing minutes. For most of the game, they performed better than the tradition-drenched Tar Heels, swishing 10 three-pointers, turning 7-footer Aziz N’Diaye loose on North Carolina’s skilled big men, controlling the game with superior quickness and toughness.
“I was scared,” coach Roy Williams said while praising the Huskies. “I was scared to death.”
But in the last five minutes, those frightening Huskies lost focus. They turned into a different team after Thomas made a jumper to give Washington a 76-73 lead with 5:40 remaining.
The Huskies missed layups and committed five of their 13 turnovers down the stretch. Freshman Terrence Ross, who finished with a team-best 19 points, let North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes swipe the ball from him on one offensive possession, and on the next, Ross drove to the basket without a plan and missed a wild shot. Senior forward Justin Holiday committed two turnovers in crunch time. The most critical: Holiday tried to throw an inbounds pass over the long-armed Henson. Easy steal.
Washington, which had improved its late-game execution throughout the season, fell back into early-season bad habits. How bad was it? The Huskies’ best player, Thomas, didn’t take a shot in a key three-minute stretch leading to the final attempt.
“I felt like we were going to win,” Thomas said in a somber Washington locker room. “It hurts right now, but it’ll probably hurt even more later when I get back home.”
It hurts because the Huskies were just a solid finish away from doing something special. North Carolina has a 29-1 record in NCAA tournament games played in its home state. It could’ve easily been 28-2.
Holiday will regret not respecting Henson’s length. Overton, who was suspended for the Pac-10 tournament last week after being charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor, will regret not making sure that he was fouled. Romar will regret not putting the ball in Thomas’ hands with 5.4 seconds left.
“It’s on us,” Thomas said of the loss.
“We didn’t make the plays that were necessary to allow us to be in the victory circle,” Romar said.
Put it on the list of Big Dance heartbreakers under Romar. Alabama-Birmingham in 2004. Connecticut in 2006. Purdue in 2009. Now this one. Every NCAA tournament loss is painful, but Romar’s Huskies tend to get ousted in the most torturous manner possible.
Eventually, success will even out the disappointment. Eventually.
One day soon.
OK, Huskies, any day now.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer