LAS VEGAS — It was a fitting end for the Washington men’s basketball team, which was riding high following a road sweep in the desert, to drop its first-round matchup Wednesday in the Pac-12 tournament to Arizona, 77-70.
It was fitting that Isaiah Stewart dropped a career-high 29 points while the rest of the Huskies (15-17, 5-13 Pac-12) struggled to hit shots.
It was fitting that the UW’s defense came out strong only to lose steam in the second half.
At the end of the 2019-20 campaign, it was also fitting that UW coach Mike Hopkins would tear up knowing Wednesday could have been Stewart’s last game in college.
“I’ve known this kid since he’s been young and he’s going to have a great career, but you never want to lose your guys,” he said. “But I’ve never been around a kid like this, ever. Just honored to have that 12 months I’ve had.”
Stewart saved his best for last when his team needed him, despite the loss.
Playing without the offensive execution and pace that guided it to wins over Arizona State and Arizona less than a week ago, Washington saw Stewart score 18 of its 30 first-half points, shooting a perfect 6 of 6 from the field.
Everyone else for UW shot a combined 5 of 23 from the field for 12 first-half points.
“He’s been Mr. Consistency every night,” Hopkins said. “Dominant in the paint, faced up, you could see the hard work everywhere, every night. When they pack the paint the way they do on him you’re going to have opportunities to build a score and tonight we just didn’t make a lot of shots.”
The Huskies finished shooting 3 of 23 from three-point range, with freshman forward Jaden McDaniels scoring just 10 points on 3-of-9 shooting and Nahziah Carter scoring just two on 1-of-9 shooting.
Thanks to a strong defensive effort in the first half, UW was able to keep the deficit to a manageable five points at the half, hoping desperately that shots would fall.
After pushing the ball in transition and scoring almost at will last weekend, the Huskies turned the ball over 19 times and scored just 10 points off Wildcat turnovers.
“I felt like in the first half we had four, five or six opportunities in the first half where we threw it away and we should have scored,” Hopkins said. “Those are big plays that have to happen in a game against a caliber of team like Arizona. Those things have to happen. Sometimes you just don’t have it and a couple of those plays here and there, they add up for sure.”
The Huskies continued their offensive ineptitude in the second half, going the first 6:32 without a field goal. In that stretch, the Wildcats were able to open up a double-digit lead. A UW defense that once was able to stifle Arizona less than a week ago allowed it to score with ease. An offense that was once humming and firing on all cylinders with contributions from everyone, slowed.
“I felt like when our shots weren’t falling, we were hanging our heads,” freshman guard Marcus Tsohonis said. “It’s just those little plays that happened. We weren’t making shots, turnovers happened; we weren’t able to get over that. It was a tough game, they played pretty good defense, but it was up to us to make shots and that’s not what happened.”
Washington’s 2019-2020 campaign will be one remembered for its high expectations and disappointing performance. Playing with three former five-star recruits in Stewart and McDaniels and Quade Green, the Huskies lost Green to academic ineligibility at the beginning of conference season and were never the same.
UW’s last two recruiting classes that featured five-star recruits, in 2016 with Markelle Fultz and in 2011 with Tony Wroten Jr., also did not result in NCAA tournament bids.
Stewart hasn’t made decision on future
When asked whether he would consider returning to Washington next season, Stewart said it’s not completely out of the question.
“Of course. I’m going to talk with Coach Hop,” he said. “I haven’t made no final decisions. I’m not even paying attention to that stuff right now. Me and Coach Hop we’ll talk.”
McDaniels, who is also a projected first-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, was not made available to the media after the loss. Both players won’t have a lot of time to make a decision, having to decide at least 60 days before the NBA draft takes place on June 25 in Brooklyn.