The jam-packed Alaska Airlines Arena, which was crammed to the rafters with Huskies fans, waited all night for a reason to explode and unleash over a decade’s worth of frustration.
At times it felt as if the soldout crowd might erupt when No. 22 Washington came within striking distance of surging past No. 9 Gonzaga.
However, the Huskies could never close the gap and the 48th meeting in this in-state rivalry that dates back to 1910 ended just like the previous five meetings – with a Zags win.
This time the Bulldogs held on for an 83-76 victory Sunday night to maintain their dominance in a series in which they’ve won 13 of the past 14 games against UW.
“We got right there and we just couldn’t make a play,” UW coach Mike Hopkins said. “You’ve got to be able to make some plays. … In championship games and when you play a team of this caliber, every play matters.”
After last year’s 81-79 defeat in Spokane, the Huskies believed they had narrowed the gaping disparity with the Bulldogs. And another close defeat earned Mark Few’s respect.
“I thought they were really, really good,” the GU coach said. “Like very good.”
Few and most of the 30 NBA scouts were particularly impressed with UW freshman Isaiah Stewart, who put on a showcase in his first game against a top-10 team.
“Man oh man, very impressed with Stewart, his hands and how he catches and how he finishes,” Few said. “He makes free throws.”
Stewart was magnificent while pummeling Gonzaga for a game-high 21 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the floor and 9 of 10 on free throws. He also led UW with 10 rebounds.
“We were the more talented team, but they were the better team,” Stewart said. “In order for us to reach our goals, obviously we want to win the national championship, we’re just going to have to come together as a team. We have so much talent.”
Washington received solid performances from Jaden McDaniels (15 points, seven rebounds and five assists), Nahziah Carter (15 points and five rebounds) and Quade Green (14 points and eight assists).
However, scoring wasn’t an issue.
The Huskies needed to slow down a high-powered Gonzaga team that entered the game fifth in the country while averaging 86.2 points per game.
During Hopkins’ three-year tenure, UW is 4-9 when allowing at least 80 points.
Hopkins also lamented the Huskies’ 19 turnovers, which led to 18 points. The Bulldogs also benefited from a 16-5 disparity in second-chance points.
“You play a top-10 team and you can’t have 19 turnovers,” Hopkins said. “That’s one of the things that prevented us from getting over the hump.”
Stewart added: “Sometimes we’re playing too fast or sometimes we’re always trying to make a highlight play. I feel like if we relax and control the game instead of letting the game speed us up, then we’ll be fine.”
Washington’s miscues, which were highlighted by 12 first-half turnovers, were a big reason why Gonzaga led 41-37 at halftime.
The Bullldogs extended their lead to nine (65-56) with 8:35 left, but the Huskies kept chipping away.
When McDaniels canned a three-pointer at the top of the key to cut UW’s deficit to 72-70 with 3:51 left, the crowd burst into an ear-splitting “Go-Huskies!” chant that reverberated around the arena.
That’s when Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie and Carter traded three-pointers before back-to-back baskets from Ryan Woolridge pushed GU’s lead to 79-73.
Carter struck again from downtown to narrow UW’s deficit to 79-76 with 1:45 remaining.
An improbable upset win was right there for the Huskies until Joel Ayayi finished them off with a dagger three-pointer from about 30 feet that gave Gonzaga an 82-76 lead with 25 seconds left.
“We have stretches when we’re really, really good, but it can’t always be at the end of the game,” Carter said. “We need to play really, really good at every moment of the game.”
Gonzaga received a balanced scoring attack in which all five starters scored in double figures.
Filip Petrusev led the Bulldogs (10-1) with 17 points while Woolridge had 16, Corey Kispert and Tillie 15 each and Ayayi 12.
Washington (7-2) is 1-2 against currently ranked teams, including a win over Baylor and a loss to Tennessee.
“This why you play these games,” Hopkins said. “You play these games to learn about your team. … We’ve just got to grow from this, learn from this and move forward.
“We know that these games will benefit us in the long run for sure.”