The Huskies just needed to start having fun, Mike Hopkins stressed this week. Stop playing with the weight of the world on their shoulders. Remember what it was that drew them to the game in the first place.
That’s all well and good in theory. The truth is, however, that the fun has gone out of this Washington men’s basketball season that was once brimming with promise.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Huskies go up handily in second half – by nine points this time on a flurry of three-pointers as the crowd reaches a frenzy of excitement. Huskies cough up lead in a flurry of turnovers and missed shots as the crowd reaches a frenzy of frustration.
“We’re making mistakes on both ends, and we’re allowing it to kind of fester,’’ said Hopkins afterward.
Something ghastly always seems to happen to sap whatever momentum they manage to build. This time, it was Jaden McDaniels’ technical foul – No. 5 on the season – for apparently talking some smack immediately after a dazzling dunk on Arizona stalwart Zeke Nnaji. What had been a rousing Husky surge turned into a 7-0 Arizona run.
Hopkins keeps talking about a mystical point in the future when the Huskies erase their propensity for self-destruction, and “find our best game,” in his words.
But since Quade Green’s academic ineligibility, Washington has been a shell of the squad that stunned the current top-ranked team in America, Baylor – the Huskies are the “1” in the Bears’ 17-1 – and threw a scare into No. 2 Gonzaga.
They are 1-7 since Green went out, but it is the way they are losing that is sapping their joy. All but two of their defeats are by single digits, many after blowing big leads, too many coming down to a lack of execution at the end, invariably coupled with some sort of heroics by the opposition.
This time, it was a three-pointer by Jemari Baker Jr. with 37 seconds left that put the Wildcats ahead to stay. The Huskies still had chances after that, but RaeQuan Battle missed a three, McDaniels turned the ball over, and then Marcus Tsohonis failed to connect on another three-ball in the waning seconds.
“We’re close, but we’ve got to teach them how to win,” Hopkins said. “We keep making some of the same errors and same mistakes.”
The presence of Dom Green, who two years ago hit an exhilarating game-winner in the same building to beat Arizona, couldn’t coax any kind of reprise on this night when they desperately needed it. One of the many issues for these Huskies is that they can’t produce a finisher in the fashion of Jaylen Nowell, who knew how to create a shot in crunch time.
Hopkins said that neither of their final two shots, by Battle and Tsohonis, was by design. The idea was to get it into Isaiah Stewart, who was hounded all night by Arizona and finished 3 of 13 from the floor. It never happened.
“We actually planned on getting a layup to tie it up,” Battle said. “I felt that the play was broken. I made that choice. It wasn’t a good choice. I take that, but I’m growing as an individual and we’re all growing as a team, so we’ve got some things to fix.”
Hopkins acknowledged the Huskies’ inability to get into proper position as they grapple for the final shots.
“I don’t know if that’s fatigue or clarity or what,’’ he said. “It’s something we have to figure out.”
Nahziah Carter was asked if it’s possible to heed Hopkins’ urging to have fun, when so many games come down to such a bitter conclusion.
“I mean, everyone wants to win, but I wouldn’t say it’s the hardest thing to have fun out there,” he said. “You only get this chance once in a lifetime. We’re here four years.”
Or one year, in the likely case of Stewart and McDaniels, and the Huskies are running out of time to maximize their presence. They’ve gone from once dreaming of a Final Four appearance to hoping to sneak into the NCAA Tournament to now just being desperate for a win, any win, to turn things around.
“We did a really good job taking away the three the rest of the game until it came down to the last six minutes,” Battle said. “We just have to have a little more sense of urgency at the end.”
It’s something they need, well, urgently.