SEATTLE – Dejounte Murray’s account of Lorenzo Romar’s halftime speech could have applied to any number of power-conference teams playing a first-round game in the National Invitation Tournament, which is a little like college basketball’s version of purgatory.
Because if you’re in the NIT, that means you’re not in the NCAA tournament, and that can make it difficult for a group of college athletes to decide they want to play their hardest.
On Tuesday night at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, it appeared the Washington Huskies had decided not to. And that, essentially, is what Romar told them at halftime of their game against Long Beach State.
“A lot of dudes were down,” said Murray, a freshman guard, “and (Romar) was like, ‘some of you guys look like you don’t care about the season being over.’ And I spoke up and I was like, ‘I care.’”
He played like it, scoring a game-high 30 points to go along with nine rebounds and five assists. And he wasn’t alone. Fellow freshman star Marquese Chriss scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, thrilling the small crowd of 3,505 with an array of monster slam dunks. Fifth-year senior guard Andrew Andrews, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, finished with 25 points and five assists, and made eight free throws in the game’s final 36.7 seconds.
So the Huskies won this ridiculous affair, 107-102 (defense, anyone?), after clawing from a 14-point first-half deficit to advance to the second round of this consolation tournament. It was the first time two teams scored 100 points in the same, non-overtime NIT game since 2000, and it was entertaining for that reason alone.
As a result, the No. 3-seed Huskies will face No. 2 seed San Diego State in the second round, likely at 8:30 p.m. Monday in San Diego. The Aztecs cruised to a 79-55 blowout of IPFW on Tuesday night.
Washington’s victory was not as easy.
It wasn’t secured until the final 40 seconds, a period in which UW outscored LBSU 8-2 after falling behind 100-99 on a Justin Bibbins layup with 37.3 seconds to play. Andrews responded with a pair of free throws, the 49ers responded by missing shots and committing a crucial turnover, and Andrews kept going back to the line and kept converting.
But the Huskies (19-14) trailed 51-46 at halftime, and the margin was only that close because of an 8-0 UW run to end the first half. The 49ers jumped them from the start, racing to a 14-6 lead that later became 40-28, then 47-33 with a little more than four minutes remaining before halftime.
Washington might not have looked disinterested, but the Huskies certainly lacked energy. They watched 49ers leading scorer Nick Faust connect on 3-pointers. They watched other LBSU players drive for uncontested layups. They got beat in transition. They turned the ball over 11 times in the first 20 minutes. They got beat to the offensive glass.
Then, Romar said, something changed.
“After we came out pretty sluggish,” Romar said, “I thought (we) realized that if we didn’t get going, we were going to be going home for the summer and we weren’t going to be playing.”
After falling behind by 10 points, the Huskies used a 12-4 run to cut LBSU’s lead to 68-66 with 13:40 to play, and took their first lead at 77-74 on Chriss’ 3-point play with 11:28 left.
Chriss and Murray, freshmen who are expected to consider entering the NBA draft this summer, both turned in stellar performances in what could have been their final home game. Murray’s teardrop floater proved impossible for the 49ers to defend (though he did finish with seven turnovers), and he made 10-of-16 from the field.
Chriss used his athleticism to play above the rim. He finished with four dunks and had one of UW’s most impressive blocked shots of the season, pinning an LBSU layup attempt against the backboard with two hands, possessing the ball on his way down and turning it into a takeaway.
“I just tried to play hard and get rebounds when my team needed it,” Chriss said.
The 49ers (20-15) shot 49.3 percent from the field, though they committed 17 turnovers that led to 23 UW points. And the Huskies ended up outrebounding LBSU, too, 43-35, including 18 offensive boards that helped produce 19 second-chance points.
Faust led LBSU with 26 points. Bibbins added 17, and A.J. Spencer scored 16.
But it was the Huskies who found a way to survive.
“Early on, I just didn’t think our effort was there,” Romar said. “I thought we had a poor effort. Once our effort was at the proper level, things began to change.”
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