COLUMBUS, Ohio – With 63 seconds remaining in the collegiate careers of Washington’s four seniors, Mike Hopkins turned to the sidelines and emptied his bench one last time.
On a miserable Sunday afternoon when UW’s defense faltered and the offense fell apart in the second half, the ninth-seeded Huskies’ return to the NCAA tournament — their first appearance in eight years — ended with a resounding thud and an 81-59 defeat against No. 1 seed North Carolina in the round of 32.
Before it was over, Hopkins pulled his four seniors — Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Dominic Green — who walked off the court for the last time wearing UW jerseys.
While a lot of the 19,610 spectators in Nationwide Arena serenaded them with a standing ovation, the Huskies hugged and cried on the sidelines.
Two days earlier, UW’s starters exited the game early to celebrate their 78-61 victory over Utah State.
But crushing the Mountain West challenger is one thing and hanging with North Carolina, a six-time NCAA national champion, proved to be too difficult a challenge for Washington.
In fact, the Huskies have struggled all season with similar types of high-profile matchups. They suffered lopsided defeats against Auburn and Virginia Tech while falling in the final seconds at Gonzaga.
Each of those teams advanced to the Sweet 16, but North Carolina might be better than them all.
“I got them going all the way and winning the whole thing,” Green said. “That’s how good they are. We knew they were a good team coming in, but they took it to another level.”
Washington kept things relatively close in the first half and trailed 41-33 at halftime.
Still, the early pace favored the Tar Heels and signaled doom for the Huskies if they couldn’t slow down a prolific UNC offense that ranked third in the country while averaging 86.1 points a game.
Crisp drained a three-pointer to start the second half and cut UW’s deficit to five points (41-36).
It was as close as the Huskies would get to catching the Tar Heels and the beginning to the end of their season’s final game.
Over the next 4:33, Washington’s offense went cold while missing six shots and committing four turnovers.
Meanwhile, North Carolina broke the game open with a 13-0 run capped by Coby White’s free throws for a 54-36 lead with 14:22 left.
“We had problems scoring,” said Dickerson, who finished with 10 points and five rebounds. “We just couldn’t score the ball. When you have a hard time scoring and they’re killing us on the glass that was a big problem.”
UNC outrebounded UW 48-24, including a 15-8 disparity in offensive rebounds. The Tar Heels led 17-4 in second-chance points.
In one moment, Hopkins clenched his fist, his neck tendons went taut and out came all of his frustrations when a missed UNC shot sat tantalizing on the rim.
Washington forward Sam Timmins and Green failed to retrieve the ball that landed in Luke Maye’s massive hands.
On the sidelines, Hopkins shouted to Timmins: “Sammy! Get physical!”
However, the Huskies had no answer for Maye, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
Washington also never stopped White, who had 17 points and four three-pointers. Nassir Little added 20 points off the bench and Cameron Johnson tallied 13 points and seven assists for North Carolina (29-6), which faces No. 5 Auburn on Friday in the Sweet 16.
Meanwhile, the Huskies (27-9) are left to reflect on a season that included their most victories since 2004-05, record-breaking achievements, a Pac-12 regular-season championship and a trophy-case full of individual postseason awards.
And despite the short stay, the Huskies savored their long-awaited return to the Big Dance.
“Everyone comes into college saying you want to play on this stage and be able to win your league and be able to say you’re a champion,” said Thybulle, who had four steals Sunday to finish with 126 on the season and 331 in his career – both Pac-12 records. “I was able to accomplish all that this year with three seniors. Three of my senior teammates who we’ve been through it all together.”
Dickerson sat silently at his locker when it hit him that his UW career was over.
“I looked around and my dudes were all sad, coach Hop was talking to us and he was crying a little bit,” Dickerson said. “I’m not going to lie, it feels great to be a graduate of this school, but to not be able to play basketball here anymore sucks.
“At the beginning of the year if you’d ask me that question, I would have said I can’t wait to be done with college. But I’m not.”
Across the room, Crisp felt a sense of pride about resurrecting a dormant program that had fallen to 9-22 and 2-16 in the Pac-12 two seasons ago.
“Biggest takeaway is we turned the program around back to where it should be and back to where it was,” he said. “This is where we should expect to be every year.
“We got a taste of it. Now I fully expect these young guys to keep it going and as long as Coach Hop is here, then that’s going to happen.”
Still, it remains to be seen if Jaylen Nowell, the Pac-12 player of the year, will return next season.
“I don’t know yet,” the sophomore guard said Sunday. “Wish I had a better answer for you, but right now I don’t.”
Perhaps it was an omen that Hopkins pulled Nowell at the 1:03 mark to allow him to walk off with UW’s seniors.
If Sunday was his final game with the Huskies, then Nowell went out scoring a team-high 12 points on 6-for-11 shooting while collecting four rebounds.
And Nahziah Carter, who scored 10 points, provided a glimpse of what UW fans can expect next season.
“Lately I’ve been playing well and the seniors told me to go out there, be yourself and play well,” said Carter, who scored 10 points in the first half, but was scoreless in the second. “I didn’t play as much in the second and I guess I got cold.”
The same can be said for UW’s offense, which converted just 9 of 31 field goals and was outscored 40-26 in the second half.
After a tearful address to his team and his postgame news conference, Hopkins sat in a quiet room still contemplating and fretting about all the things that went wrong in the biggest game of his coaching career.
Then he allowed himself a moment to smile.
“We got to experience the Carolina Way and it may not feel good now, but it was incredible,” Hopkins said. “Experience is the greatest teacher.
“So yeah, I could go on and on about all the things I wish we had done and how I wish I could have prepared them better. The score may not show it, but we fought hard today and all season. And as a coach, that’s all I can ask of these kids.”