TEMPE, Ariz. – Can the most talented last-place team in the country find enough life and direction in the desert to threaten the rest of the Pac-12 in the conference tournament next week?
They Husky men looked the part in a 90-83 victory at Arizona State that was as rare for the high scoring and newfound ability to close out a game as it was for its location – the team’s first conference road win of the season.
Naz Carter scored 14 of his career-high-tying 23 points in a 49-point second half. Little-used energy guy Elijah Hardy played a key role for a career-high 32 minutes – after playing 12 combined in his last three games. And the UW zone finally closed up the middle long enough during the second half for a decisive 20-4 run built on transition baskets – including a three-dunk sequence that gave the Huskies the lead.
The best last-place team in the country? Consider it a well-earned, if dubious, honor for a team projected to have two first-round NBA draft choices in June that clinched last place in the Pac-12 when Oregon State won Thursday.
“We don’t look at it that way,” Husky coach Mike Hopkins said, pointing to NET rankings that continue to elevate the Huskies beyond the unsightly 14-16 record.
He and his players look at things like wins in two of their last three games after a nine-game losing streak. Things like leading in the second half in 12 of their 16 losses – six times by eight or more points.
And they look at finishing strong this final week in the regular season, which finishes Saturday in Tucson against Arizona.
“It’s huge,” said Carter, whose other 23-point game came in the season opener against Baylor. “We kept telling you (media) guys, we’re not defeated. And we don’t feel defeated.
“We still have aspirations of winning this thing.”
This thing being the four-games-in-four-days Hail Mary of a conference tournament – that will prevent them from joining the 2012 and 2016 Huskies in ignominious college-basketball history.
If Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart are drafted in the first round as expected, and they fail to win the Pac-12 tourney, they’ll become the third Husky team in nine seasons to miss the NCAAs with two first-round picks the same year.
In the last 20 years, only three other programs can claim that distinction and only once each (2001 Seton Hall, 2002 Fresno State and 2013 Kentucky).
Can they pull off what Oregon did last year in the tourney – but from the bottom of the league?
It does look wide open.
“Especially this year, it’s a cannibal league,” Hopkins said. “Everybody’s eating on each other. There’s so many good teams. That’s what makes it great. We’re excited to get that opportunity.”
An especially young team seems to be maturing at the right time. After missing 15 free throws in a four-point loss to Washington State last Friday, it became an emphasis in practice all week, Carter said.
They made 19 of 22 on Thursday.
“It’s one game. We played well,” Hopkins said. “We’ve got to be able to come back and play another good game and use it as momentum, win or lose, and then you’re going to Vegas. And every game we’ve played this year except one or two we’ve had a chance to win.”
Nine of their losses have been by six points or less.
“We know if we execute and play a little bit better, we can beat anybody in our league, and I know they know that,” Hopkins said. “Now can we go out and prove it?”
Carter, Isaiah Stewart (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Hardy (five assists, four turnovers) all seemed to believe it after this game – despite all the lost second-half leads, all the missed free throws, all the failures to close out games the last two months since point guard Quade Green became academically ineligible.
So why believe now? What’s the difference?
“We learned from all those games,” Hardy said. “That’s what’s changed.”