TUCSON, Ariz. — Toward the end of a 40-minute basketball game that must have felt like a boxing match, the Washington men’s basketball team looked like a prize fighter staggering on his feet.
Despite giving up an average of two inches per starter, the undersized Huskies traded blows with the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats, countering their humongous front line with a brilliant shooting display in the first half.
While Arizona hammered inside with 10 dunks and highlight jams, the Huskies peppered the Wildcats’ vaunted defense with jumpers and floaters.
Saddled with foul trouble, the Huskies eventually wore down in the final minutes, falling 71-62 in the Saturday matinee in front of 14,530 at McKale Center.
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“With so many big bodies, you’re banging that entire time, down the stretch, we could have just gotten worn down a little bit physically,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Our guys gave it everything they had. Our guys battled and were physical. I thought our guys were tough.
“And after so long, maybe down the stretch, it just got to us — their length.”
In the first half, Washington had no problems against an Arizona defense ranked sixth in opponents’ field-goal percentage.
The Huskies shot 55.6 percent from the field while building a 35-33 halftime lead.
Washington would have had a bigger lead if not for its 10 first-half turnovers, including Nick Johnson’s theft against C.J. Wilcox that led to a crowd-pleasing 360-degree slam dunk.
“It was a highlight,” Wilcox admitted. “I was going to go for the block until I saw he was starting to do something funky and I didn’t want to get mixed up in that.”
Less than four minutes into the second half, Nigel Williams-Goss made a layup and converted a free throw to put UW up 42-36 with 16:42 left.
But there were ominous signs for the Huskies.
Following Williams-Goss’ free throw, reserve forward Shawn Kemp Jr. collected his fourth foul and left the game.
Kemp’s nine points and three rebounds in the first half were a major reason why the Huskies were able to withstand Arizona’s big front line.
“It was important and that’s what we want to do with our size,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “You can wear the other team out over time if you keep getting the ball close to the basket.”
Without Kemp, senior forward Perris Blackwell, who had 12 points and 12 rebounds, was the only big body for Washington inside. He picked up his third foul shortly after the break and collected his fourth midway in the half, but managed to stay in the game.
Blackwell converted two free throws that gave Washington a 52-51 lead with 10:09 left.
That’s when Arizona’s size began to show.
On the ensuing possession, freshman forward Aaron Gordon (18 points and 11 rebounds) collected one of his four offensive rebounds and flushed a dunk to start a 9-2 run that put the Wildcats up for good.
After receiving a hard foul from Kaleb Tarczewski that knocked him to the floor, Wilcox drained a pair of free throws to pull the Huskies to 60-58 with 3:39 left. He finished with 20 points on 8-for-19 shooting, six rebounds and three assists.
“To me, he looks like a NBA player,” Miller said. “He had 20 and we did everything we could to stop him.”
Johnson, who scored a game-high 24 points, answered with a driving dunk at the other end and the Wildcats finished the game on an 11-4 run.
Miller said not every game is going to be like Thursday’s 60-25 win over Washington State. He said the Wildcats (15-0, 2-0 Pac-12) understand they’re a big target in the conference.
“We’re carrying that right now,” he said. “It’s not a burden. I think we fully expect that we’re going to get the other team’s best shot.”
The Huskies (9-6, 1-1) lamented a few offensive and defensive breakdowns in the final minutes.
“When you get down a couple of points, a lot of guys start trying to take the game over and do it themselves,” Wilcox said. “We just got to stick to the game plan and execute all the way through.”
After a sizzling shooting display in the first half, the Huskies made just 10 of 33 (30.3 percent) in the second half. They were also outrebounded 26-17 after the break.
“It’s tough,” Wilcox said. “We got to work, especially with this small lineup. Every shot that goes up, that’s when the war begins and we had to try to keep them off the glass.
“The first half we did a good job at that. The second half, they were relentless on the glass. That’s a main reason why they’re No. 1.”
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @percyallen