LAS VEGAS – Sitting in the MGM Grand Arena stands last year, Nigel Williams-Goss had the same thought as everyone else inside the building: The Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament and Las Vegas were made for each other.
“I loved it,” said the Washington freshman point guard. “I thought it was a great move to switch to the MGM.”
From 2002 through 2012 the tournament was played at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and attendance dwindled over the years.
“I had never been to the one at Staples Center, but just watching it on TV it looked kind of empty,” Williams-Goss said. “But when you had it at the MGM, it’s a little bit smaller venue but the atmosphere is crazy.”
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The Huskies toppled Washington State 64-62 last year in the first round before falling to Oregon, the eventual champion, in the semifinals, 80-77 in overtime.
Williams-Goss, who had starred the past four years at nearby Findlay Prep in Henderson, made sure to attend last year’s conference tournament after verbally committing to Washington.
He wanted to get a feel for the atmosphere and the pace of the college game and what he needed to do to be successful in the Pac-12 tournament.
“The stakes are higher,” Williams-Goss said. “The margin for error is less.”
A year later, when the conference tournament tips off at noon Wednesday with a first-round matchup between No. 8 seed Utah (20-10) and No. 9 seed Washington (17-14), Williams-Goss, the one-time spectator, will be on the court as one of the brightest young stars in the league. The 6-foot-3 point guard was selected to the Pac-12’s all-freshman team, and his face adorns a giant banner alongside other star players beneath the statuesque golden lion in the hotel lobby at the MGM Grand.
“We knew he would come in and be a leader and not be intimidated,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “He would do a whole lot of things to help us be a better basketball team, and he’s done a nice job for us.”
Paired with C.J. Wilcox and Andrew Andrews, Williams-Goss leads Washington against Utah, which beat the Huskies 78-69 in their last meeting, Feb. 6 at the Huntsmen Center. Washington won the earlier matchup, 59-57 on Jan. 8 at Alaska Airlines Arena.
“The first game, that was at a time when we were playing some of our best basketball of the season, especially on the defensive end,” Williams-Goss said. “Trying to duplicate that defensive effort will be huge for us.”
Washington held Utah to 26 percent shooting in the first half in first meeting. The Huskies surrendered 27 points to Delon Wright but forced him into an air ball on the game’s final play.
In the rematch, Utah used an 11-0 run in the second half to unlock a 51-51 tie and surge ahead 62-51 with 5:52 remaining.
“Even when they made that run, I talked to the guys and we’re all confident that we were going to win the game,” Wilcox said. “If we have that mentality this next game, we’ll be fine.”
If the Huskies lose, they’ll have to wait until Sunday to discover if they’ll receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament, where they’ve played the past two years.
With a win, Washington plays No. 1 seed Arizona at noon Thursday.
“I like matching up against Utah,” Wilcox said. “I feel like we can definitely get that one done. Part of me wants to play Arizona last, but I think getting them on their first day in Vegas could be to our advantage because we’d have already played a game and gotten into rhythm.
“I’m not worried about it. We’re capable of playing with any team.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org