This was the time to let the rest of a weak conference know that Washington was the team to beat.
With the hungry, loud crowd on its feet, expecting a little more Hec Ed magic, Darnell Gant sprung open just the way his coach has drawn it up.
Gant got a good look at a three that would have sent this hot house conference game into overtime. But in the final seconds, just like his eight previous shots, Gant’s jumper missed, hitting the front of the rim and ending another furious Husky second-half comeback bid.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him miss a shot that was clutch,” Terrence Ross said after the Gant miss.
This was a defining night at the beginning of a make-or-break weekend, in what has been a fragile Washington season.
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Beat Cal on Thursday night and back it up with a home win against Stanford on Saturday afternoon and the Huskies could have made a serious statement in the Pac-12 Conference. They could have been the front-runners.
This was the weekend to let the rest of a weak conference know that Washington was the team to beat.
And because the Huskies don’t travel to the Bay Area this season, a win like this would have been like scoring the word “quizzical” in Scrabble. This game felt as if it were worth more than most.
But there was no magic in this night.
Washington started slowly again — fell behind 47-34 early in the second half — and lost a game it could have won, 69-66 to conference-leading California.
As the Huskies begin one of the toughest stretches in their season, this start was all too familiar. They were beaten in transition. They allowed too much dribble penetration. They let Robert Thurman, a 6-foot-10 walk-on averaging 2.4 points per game, score 12 points and grab 4 rebounds in the first half.
“We came out lethargic,” Ross said. “Everything that could have gone wrong, did.”
Cal played tougher, smarter and more together. This season, for whatever reasons, the Washington players never have looked comfortable with each other.
Twice, for instance, Tony Wroten’s backdoor alley oop passes to Ross, normally as accurate as Tom Brady’s in the clutch, were offline.
This has been a season stuck in neutral. For every good thing that has happened to the Huskies, there have been several crushingly bad things.
Losing Scott Suggs before the season. Losing Aziz N’Diaye briefly in December. And now losing C.J. Wilcox, who is week-to-week with a stress fracture in his left femur.
It has been a season as erratic as a seismograph. But Washington (11-7, 4-2 in Pac-12) really hasn’t played consistently since its two-loss trip to New York.
If there is a recurring theme, it is the play of point guard Abdul Gaddy. When he is aggressive, as he was in this second half, when he is taking the ball assertively to the basket, when he is playing confidently with the ball in his hands, this is a better team.
At halftime, with Washington behind 35-25, coach Lorenzo Romar made it clear to Gaddy that he had to do more.
“What Abdul has done … we have three guys — Wroten, Ross and Wilcox, who are capable of scoring 25 or more on any given night,” Romar said. “Abdul has settled in and done a fantastic job of distributing the ball. But with C.J. gone, Abdul has to change his focus a little bit. Some kind of way, he has to be in attack mode and I thought he was more in the second half.”
Gaddy played 38 tough minutes, but after taking only two shots in the first half, he went 4-for-7 in the second and finished with 12 points.
“Abdul, he has the highest I.Q. on the team,” said Ross, who finished with 15 points and played smothering defense on Jorge Gutierrez. “Tonight he knew he had to be more assertive, more aggressive and that’s what he did.”
With Cal up 13, Gaddy drove hard to the basket for a score, then he muscled his way for an and-one that preceded a Ross three, cutting the lead to 47-42.
Later he scored on another drive and hit a difficult leaner in the lane that carved into the Cal lead again. This was Gaddy at his best, playing the way he did last season before his season-ending knee injury.
“When Abdul drives it kind of gets other defenders’ attention,” Ross said. “It was really helpful with him getting to the basket and reading the defense correctly.”
But the Huskies couldn’t dig out of their self-inflicted deficit and they lost a home game in a conference whose race will be won by the team that can defend its home court.
In this measuring stick game, Washington came up short.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org