SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Three minutes into a painful, season-squashing second half, Lorenzo Romar slammed his clipboard onto the hardwood floor. He trembled with disgust, waved his arms wildly and screamed, almost in disbelief that his Washington basketball team had come this far and chosen this game to relent.
“Do you even care?” the normally mild-mannered coach exclaimed during a timeout. “Have some pride!”
He was angry that the Huskies had failed to get back on defense and allowed a layup in transition to West Virginia forward Devin Ebanks. UW trailed by just three points at the time, but Romar could sense where the game was headed.
He was right, sadly.
A team that wound up charming its fans with a penchant for atonement, with a sudden maturation that turned a seemingly lost season into something special, succumbed to its weaknesses Thursday night.
In the second half against West Virginia, the Huskies returned to being an impatient, misfiring offensive team. They played decent initial defense, but they failed to keep the Mountaineers off the offensive glass – the biggest key to this game – and were out-rebounded 49-29. When the Huskies needed composure to make a comeback, a trait they’d mastered throughout six weeks of must-win pressure, they rushed and fell into a deeper hole.
The result was a frustrating 69-56 loss at the Carrier Dome in the NCAA men’s Sweet 16, ending a season of resilience.
“It’s going to hurt for a while,” guard Elston Turner said.
It will hurt because the Mountaineers aren’t as good as Washington made them look in the second half. The Huskies led 29-27 at halftime despite getting zero points from senior forward Quincy Pondexter, who committed three fouls and played only seven minutes in the first half. They were doing exactly what they needed to do, even without Pondexter, forcing West Virginia into 13 early turnovers (23 for the game) and using their quickness and hustle to complement solid defense.
Then, in the second half, the Huskies allowed the Mountaineers to grab 16 of their 23 offensive rebounds and score 13 of their 17 second-chance points.
Meanwhile, on offense, Washington missed 20 of 29 shots after halftime. The offensive woes included one possession in which the Huskies missed five point-blank shots. Throw in 21 turnovers, and only seven points from Pondexter, and they had no chance to make a comeback.
And so, you wonder: Was West Virginia that much better, or did the Huskies trip over an opportunity?
“They’re a real good team,” Washington center Matthew Bryan-Amaning said. “I’m not going to take that from them. But we were up two at halftime, and Quincy wasn’t even in the game. We didn’t do the stuff we normally do. We gave up too many rebounds, had too many turnovers, missed easy shots. It’s a tough way to end the season.”
During a timeout late in the second half, Bryan-Amaning ran to the bench, screaming, “We can’t lose like this! Come on!”
It was a popular feeling as this improbable Sweet 16 run ended.
Three former Huskies – Nate Robinson, Spencer Hawes and Jon Brockman – sat in the Carrier Dome crowd and yelled passionately. The old stars, now in the NBA, got together and paid for a private plane to fly here from Boston, where the Sacramento Kings (Hawes’ and Brockman’s team) and Boston Celtics (Robinson’s team) played Friday night. Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who came to root on his alma mater, Kentucky, joined them on the trip.
Robinson was the loudest fan in the massive dome. As the game shifted from promising to depressing, he directed his ire toward the referees, who made several questionable calls. He cursed often, and Hawes shouted a few times, too. By the end of the game, all three players yelled.
“Y’all weak as hell!” Robinson shouted to an official late in the game. “Weak as hell!”
It was that kind of night. Even Romar showed more emotion. He drew a technical foul after removing his suit jacket in protest of a call. As Ebanks shot the extra free throws, Romar slowly untangled the sleeves of his coat and slipped it back on.
For the third time, Romar couldn’t advance past the Sweet 16. His day will come.
Still, it hurts.
“The questions start, ‘Can you ever get past the Sweet 16?’ ” Romar said. “I never understood why people were so hard on the (Denver) Broncos when they couldn’t quite win the championship. They did make it there. So I feel like we still have accomplished a lot, even though we didn’t make that next step this year.
“But our program is growing. When you compare the last eight years with the history of our program, I think we’ve held our own. And that’s just the next step. We have to get past this. And we’ll work hard to try to.”
Once the disappointment subsides, the only emotion remaining is resignation that a very good thing is over. The Huskies didn’t have another improbable victory in them. Thrilling rides always end too soon.