BERKELEY, Calif. – The once-dominant Huskies that ranked among the top 25 teams nationally is suddenly a confused and desperate team needing leadership and a little bit of luck.
Washington’s envious stockpile of NBA draft prospects is out of sync without the guidance of point guard Quade Green, who has been ruled academically ineligible.
And UW’s vaunted defense can’t stop anyone, especially three-point shooters, at the end of games when it matters most.
Arguably the most talented team in Husky history that seemed destined for a return trip to the NCAA tournament has lost four of the past five games after dropping a stunning 61-58 decision in overtime at California on Saturday.
“We’re a good team and they got to know that,” coach Mike Hopkins said. “It’s discouraging when you lose, but you got to figure out how you become better. How do we become better?”
That’s the million-dollar question.
It’s difficult to envision the Huskies playing any worse than they did during this disastrous Bay Area trip, which began Thursday with a 61-55 defeat at Stanford. Both games had common themes. Washington’s reconfigured lineup led to a paucity of points and late-game defensive breakdowns.
“We have to execute better,” Hopkins said. “When you play on the road – it’s hard to win on the road – so you’re trying to put yourself in position to win. I felt for 28 minutes of the Stanford game, I thought we were in position. Up 12 with eight minutes to go.
“And this game we had to fight from behind, but I still felt when we went up two we could have made some plays, but we didn’t. We’ve got to finish better. We have to finish games. We saw against USC (a 72-40 win on Jan. 5) when we can play on both ends for 40 minutes, we’re really, really good. Just got to keep confident. These things happen. We lost two on last-second shots.”
The Huskies trailed for more than 33 minutes, but they had their chances in this one.
Washington was down 28-20 at halftime and fell behind 41-31 with 12:15 left before switching from a zone to man-to-man defense primarily in the second half. The change in defensive tactics coupled with a 12-2 run allowed the Huskies to pull even at 43-43 after a pair of free throws from Jamal Bey at the 6:39 mark.
Minutes later, Bey’s layup put the Huskies up two points (49-47) with 3:33 remaining.
However, Cal answered at the other end with a Kareem South layup that tied it 49-49.
Washington had three chances to regain the lead in the final two minutes of regulation, but Nahziah Carter missed a three-pointer, failed to convert on a driving layup and had another three-pointer fall short as time expired.
In the extra period, the Huskies rallied from a four-point deficit when Carter and Isaiah Stewart canned a pair of free throws that tied the score at 56-56.
Trailing by two points with 34 seconds left, Carter drew a foul while shooting a three-pointer. He made two of three free throws that knotted the score once again at 58-58 and set up a wild finish.
The game appeared to be heading towards a second overtime as Cal guard Matt Bradley dribbled the clock down at the top of the key.
But then, he rose up for a three-pointer over 6-foot-9 forward Jaden McDaniels. Bradley’s straightaway shot banked hard off the glass and ricocheted into the net with six seconds left as the crowd of 4,660 at Haas Pavilion erupted.
Washington had enough time for a rebuttal and Hameir Wright got a good look at a contested three-pointer, but his shot badly missed the mark.
“He shot a bank shot,” Hopkins said of Bradley’s game-winning dagger. “The basketball gods. Sometimes that happens. (Stanford’s Daejon Davis) the other night with one second on the clock. Sometimes that happens. You’ve just got to roll with the punches and hopefully not put yourself in position where those shots hurt you.”
This one certainly hurts the Huskies.
Washington (11-6, 1-3 Pac-12), which began the season as an out-of-the-box Final Four pick by some national college basketball pundits, has stumbled to the bottom of the conference standings.
The loss of Green, who is out for at least the remainder of the regular season and the Pac-12 tournament, has thrown the Huskies into a funk.
Washington is averaging just 56.5 points – 17 fewer than their season average – while shooting 34% from the field and 21.3% on three-pointers without their point guard, who led the team in assists and was their best perimeter shooter.
“We’ve got good players,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got a good team. I thought we were in position to win both of these games.
“Every game in our league we’ve been in position. Unfortunately, you’re not going to win too many games shooting 29% from the field and 25% from the three-point line. So his (Green) three-point shooting, we miss that.”
For the second straight game, Hopkins tinkered with the lineup and started Bey at point guard in place of sophomore Elijah Hardy, who was mostly ineffective Thursday.
Hopkins used 10 players against Cal, including freshmen guards Marcus Tsohonis and RaeQuan Battle while searching for someone who could provide a spark off the bench.
“Sometimes you throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks,” Hopkins said.
Despite frequent double teams, Stewart rebounded from a career-low four points Thursday and finished with 13. Bey scored 12 points and McDaniels tallied 12 points and 11 rebounds for his second straight double-double outing.
But the Huskies needed more to overcome California (8-8, 2-1), which received a game-high 17 points from Bradley, 13 from Grant Anticevich and 10 from Paris Austin.
“We got to have better balance,” Hopkins said. “We got to have other guys stepping up. It can’t be just (Stewart) shooting 70 percent.”
With 14 games left in the regular season, Hopkins insisted there’s plenty of time for Washington to recover.
Still, the UW coach put the onus on juniors Carter and Wright and senior forward Sam Timmins to pull the Huskies out of their midseason malaise that threatens their postseason hopes.
“I’m challenging our (upperclassmen),” Hopkins said. “They’ve got to play better. We’re expecting these freshmen, but our (upperclassmen) have a great opportunity and they’ve got to play better. Bottom line, if we want to win, they’ve got to step up. Bottom line.”