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Matt Calkins: Huskies feel down after losing thriller to No. 1 Gonzaga, but don’t count them out

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 6, 2018

Washington’s Jaylen Nowell dribbles downcourt as Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. watches on the ground during the Zags’ 81-79 home win  on Wednesday  at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
Washington’s Jaylen Nowell dribbles downcourt as Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr. watches on the ground during the Zags’ 81-79 home win on Wednesday at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

There were no euphoric screams or celebratory hugs. There was no midcourt mobbing or iconic moment.

An 81-79 loss won’t find a home in the annals of Huskies history. But damn … that was impressive.

If there were ever a defeat for Husky fans to cheer, that was it. Rarely has falling short signified how much a program has grown.

By scaring the bejesus out of top-ranked Gonzaga on its home floor, the Mike Hopkins-led Huskies let the nation know what they can do. Consider this team capable of beating anyone it faces going forward.

“We are down because we lost, but in the grand scheme of things we showed we can compete with anyone,” said Huskies guard Jaylen Nowell, who scored a team-high 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting. “You’re not really given the chance to know until you’re put in situations like this, but to see our guys come out and compete like that, I’m just really proud of them.”

The Huskies walked into McCarthey Athletic Center as 15.5-point underdogs. You have to wonder if that line assumed a late charge by Washington during meaningless minutes.

After all, the last time the Dawgs played in Spokane, Gonzaga held a 35-10 lead before ambling to a 27-point win. Another annihilation was imminent, right?

That’s sure what it seemed like when the Zags jumped to a 13-point lead in the second half. A boat race seemed inevitable as GU big man Rui Hachimura dropped in 18 points in the first half, barbecuing any Husky tasked with defending him in the post.

But then a peculiar thing happened in the most intimidating venue on the West Coast. It got pin-drop quiet.

The first part of the second half may have been the Huskies’ best stretch since they beat Kansas last year. They erased a 13-point deficit in less than 5 minutes and took a three-point lead 44 seconds later.

David Crisp and Matisse Thybulle slithered their way to the line. Noah Dickerson powered his way there. Nowell and Hameir Wright knocked down key 3-pointers.

Most impressive, Washington (6-3) held the No. 2 offense in the country to two points for the first 5 1/2 minutes of the second half. If Washington could have hit any one of the open 3s it saw on any of its next three possessions, the crowd noise may have gone into negative decibels.

But then it appeared that order would be restored. The Zags took a five-point lead on a Hachimura layup with 12 minutes left. They took an eight-point lead on a Josh Perkins 3-pointer with 7 minutes left. When they went up by 11 with 5:26 to go, it seemed the only suspense would be whether they’d hold Washington to 68 points so fans could get their 68-cent medium pizza from Pizza Hut.

But then something happened that made that first Huskies run suddenly seem less peculiar. They did it again.

Down 79-71 with 2:14 to go, Washington scored the next eight points. A Sam Timmins layup, then a Nowell jumper, then a Thybulle dunk, then two Nowell free throws with 10 seconds to go.

If Hachimura doesn’t make that contested 17-footer with 0.6 seconds left, the Huskies go to overtime with every ounce of momentum on their side.

Perhaps Hopkins’ postgame reaction signaled how confident he was in his team. He didn’t find any consolation in defeat, as he thought the Huskies could win.

The only positive? The rest of the country knows now, too.

“For the nation to see on national television that, hey, Washington’s pretty good. That’s big for us,” Hopkins said.

There is never any joy in losing. Any competitor will tell you that.

But if you’re a fan of this team, there’s no reason not to feel good.

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