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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Husky men couldn’t beat Cougars because they’re just not built to win

Coach Mike Hopkins has led the Washington Huskies 12-10 (4-7 Pac-12) record this season.  (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – If you want, you can point to a missed free throw in the final 10 seconds of regulation, which allowed Washington State to tie the score before OT.

Or perhaps you’re thinking more about the turnovers – one in the final minute of regulation and two more in the last minute of overtime.

There also was a foul at the end of the first half that set up a buzzer-beating 3 for the Cougars, along with a slew of defensive mishaps.

But there is one factor, blunt as it might sound, that also tops those individual mishaps: The Huskies men’s basketball team isn’t built to win, hasn’t been for a while and might never be with Mike Hopkins as its head coach.

That’s no fun to write for a couple of reasons. One is that Seattle is a sizzling basketball city when any of its teams are rolling. This was true when the Sonics were here, when the UW men’s basketball team was a regular NCAA tournament contender, when the UW women’s team was making Final Four or Sweet 16 runs and when the Storm were racking up banners. But there’s a hole in this town’s winter-sports soul when the Washington men struggle. And that has become the norm.

Another reason is that Hopkins is among the friendliest, most engaging, most genuine and – despite all the L’s – most unflappable coaches I’ve ever covered. It’s a challenge feeling sorry for the nonwinning ways of anyone who’s cashed in on an eight-figure contract, but Hop garners that sympathy.

At some point, though, one has to acknowledge that the fans deserve better. A team that’s 32-57 in the Pac-12 over the past 41/2 seasons doesn’t cut it.

Games such as Saturday night’s – when the Huskies lost at home to Washington State 90-87 – amplify those frustrating feelings. Despite the Cougs knocking down their first seven shots, Washington (12-10, 4-7 in the Pac-12) led by 11 with under seven minutes to go in the first half. By the end of the half, however, WSU (16-6, 7-4) was up by four – a lead punctuated by a buzzer-beating three-pointer set up by a UW foul with two seconds left.

These were the type of mistakes that plagued the Huskies throughout the evening. Up by one with 1:02 left in regulation? Sahvir Wheeler throws a bad pass, the Cougs take possession and score on their next trip down. Down three in the final 90 seconds of OT – another Wheeler turnover and then one more from teammate Keion Brooks Jr. And with the Huskies up one with 11 seconds left in regulation, Moses Wood – the 87% free-throw shooter – goes 1 of 2 from the line, allowing WSU to tie in the score with four seconds left.

This is not an indictment of Brooks, Wood or Wheeler. Brooks had 35 points on 12-of-23 shooting. Wood had 18 points – six more than his average – and went 5 of 6 from 3-point distance. Wheeler had 16 points on 8-of-16 shooting and scored the go-ahead layup with 22 seconds left in the second half.

But the mistakes and misses were reflective of a squad that has lost six games by five points or fewer – including two in overtime.

“I’m sick for our fans, because it was pretty good. We just couldn’t get some stops when we needed to get some stops,” said Hopkins, whose team played its last home game vs. Washington State as a conference rival. “That’s the bottom line.”

Given that this was your rival and where you are in the standings, does this loss hit harder?

“Every loss that you have stinks. You remember every single one of them, way more than the wins,” Hopkins said. “You just gotta keep your head up. … Tonight we played offensively enough to win the game, had a chance to win the game, but those couple defensive stops that we haven’t been able to get, that’s been the difference.”

It’s been almost two months since the Huskies upset Gonzaga, which is now unranked but was No. 7 at the time. It feels longer. And as uplifting as that 25-point win over Utah might have been one week ago, it’s looking more like a one-off than a sign of things to come.

Hopkins said Saturday that the “cool thing” about the Pac-12 this year is that five or six games can put a team right back at the top of the standings. Maybe, but runs such as those just don’t happen with these Huskies these days.

No sign that is going to change.