TUCSON, Ariz. — Looking to hold onto its second straight lead in its regular-season finale Saturday night, the Washington men’s basketball team found itself in yet another blown-lead situation against Arizona.
But after pulling out a late win against Arizona State just two nights before, perhaps the Huskies have finally found a way to close out games, closing out another stunner against the Wildcats, 69-63.
Contending earlier this week that his players had plenty of belief and gas in the tank, coach Mike Hopkins and the Huskies (15-16, 5-13 Pac-12) put their late-game struggles behind them, picking up their first two conference road wins of the year just before the Pac-12 tournament.
“I think we’re moving the ball, we’re sharing it,” Hopkins said. “Guys are making more shots. In the last two games, we’ve made big plays down the stretch.”
Washington saw second-half leads disappear consistently throughout a devastating nine-game losing streak, dropping critical contests to Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Arizona when they played Jan. 30.
Saturday night, Hopkins was finally able to field questions about how well the Huskies performed down the stretch, even with mistakes.
Washington went over eight minutes without a made field goal in the final 10 minutes, an offensive drought that would have seen it crumble in games past. UW stayed true on the defensive end, though, holding the Wildcats to a 35% field-goal percentage and forcing 18 turnovers. The Huskies turned those takeaways into 23 points, and scored 17 on the fast break.
“(We were) really just trying to get in transition like in the first half and then just listening to what coach writes up on the board during timeouts and making sure we were running it and going hard,” freshman forward Jaden McDaniels said.
Still, a double-digit lead was nearly salted away to nothing in crunch time, with Arizona’s Dylan Smith hitting six three-pointers in the second half and cutting the deficit to four with 3:55 to play.
Then Jamal Bey hit a three-pointer on the wing. On the ensuing offensive possession, McDaniels hit another to bring the lead back to 10. With less than three minutes to play, the UW made its free throws and stole a game on the road.
“They’re learning how to win,” Hopkins said. “You’ve got to make big plays at the end and you’ve got to get stops. That’s what you’ve gotta do.”
Playing inspired basketball of late, McDaniels led the Huskies in scoring with 20 on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. It’s the first time the freshman has scored 20 or more in conference season.
Elijah Hardy, after playing over 30 minutes Thursday against the Sun Devils, played 27 and contributed heavily to Washington’s defensive surge.
“That’s what we’ve been just promoting with this team is on any given night, it can be someone else,” Hopkins said. “That’s how championship teams are formed. You’re not forcing shots because you trust your teammates. Trust and respect your teammates. Less contested shots, more togetherness.”
But perhaps most of all, the Huskies aren’t lingering on their past losses and chances at wins, focusing solely on what is ahead.
“Basically playing free, we know we don’t got anything to lose, really,” freshman forward Isaiah Stewart said. “Forget all our losses, we’re not thinking about that. Just playing basketball and just trying to continue to win.”
Washington will have to as it prepares to play Arizona again in the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday, with both teams locked into the 12th and fifth seeds, respectively.
“You get a chance at the end of the day,” Hopkins said. “It’s what makes March Madness what it is. Anything can happen. We’ve just got to go to Vegas and play against a great program like this and hopefully we can come back and execute the game plan.”
Huskies to fly directly to Las Vegas due to coronavirus concerns
With in-person classes canceled at UW, the team will travel directly from Tucson to Las Vegas Saturday night, due to novel coronavirus concerns.
“We would only be in Seattle for less than 24 hours at least,” Hopkins said. “So it was like why don’t we just stay out there, get these guys out.
“The university and everybody has just shown great leadership in terms of the decisions they make.”
Washington will have a few days to prepare to play Arizona again Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena at 2:30 p.m.