Because they knew the importance of what beating No. 8 Arizona would mean, the Washington Huskies were left deflated and demoralized.
Instead of a season-saving victory, the Huskies are riding a four-game losing streak for the first time in five years with no certainty about when it will end.
"Right now, tonight, our guys are really down. Our guys know that we came out ready to play," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "When you come out and you realize you didn't give it your all, that's tough. But when you fight like we did tonight and you come up short, it takes more than a couple hours to get over that."
Nick Johnson had 15 points, five in the final 2 minutes, and Arizona rallied from an early deficit for an ugly 57-53 victory Thursday night that snapped a three-game losing streak to the Huskies.
Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill both added 10 points for the Wildcats, who won their second straight after losing at home to UCLA. It's a victory that won't be remembered for the quality of play, but a gritty effort from Sean Miller's club that easily could have found itself in a major hole after a sloppy first half.
C.J. Wilcox, the leading scorer in the Pac-12 in conference games, was limited to just 11 points through a combination of foul trouble and harassing defense by Johnson. Scott Suggs added 11 points for the Huskies, but Washington (12-9, 4-4 Pac-12) made just 1 of 12 3-point attempts, missed seven free throws and committed 17 turnovers.
"It's frustrating. It's surprising cause it's at home," Wilcox said. "Sometimes that's how it works. You have to find a way to win the ball game. I feel like we had a chance to win the game we just had to execute."
While Arizona was getting clutch plays from its stars in the final minutes, Washington was failing to capitalize on its chances. Washington took the lead at 48-46 with 4:34 left when Wilcox hit the Huskies only 3. The Huskies committed a turnover on their next possession, followed by missing four of seven free-throw attempts over the next 90 seconds.
And yet, when Suggs scored on a drive with 1:04 left, the Huskies trailed just 54-53 and were down 55-53 after Johnson split a pair of free throws. Washington called for a backdoor lob to Wilcox and the play was open. But Gaddy's pass was far too deep and Wilcox did his best just to get a hand on it. The turnover forced Washington to foul with 26.8 seconds left. Johnson hit both this time and after Aziz N'Diaye missed a desperation 3, the Wildcats dribbled out the clock.
"It was just meant to isolate C.J. I didn't see anybody helping at the rim," Gaddy said. "I should have just made a better pass. We just had to execute."
The Wildcats (18-2, 6-2) closed on an 11-5 run — that featured big shots from Johnson and Hill — and got plenty of help from the careless Huskies. Washington was trying for its first win over a top 10 team since 2008 and instead started conference play with four straight wins followed by four straight losses. They have dropped five games at home this season and have little room for error from here out when it comes to postseason fate.
"I thought it was a great opportunity for us that we weren't able to capitalize on," Romar said.
Washington was up by four points when Wilcox picked up his fourth foul and down by five when he re-entered the game with 7:23 left. Washington's offense immediately improved. Suggs scored four straight points followed by a driving layup by Gaddy and finally the Huskies' first 3-pointer after missing their first 10 attempts. Gaddy recovered his dribble in the lane and found Wilcox open in the corner for the 3 to put Washington up by two.
Lyons answered with a driving layup as the shot clock expired and Hill scored off a careless Washington turnover to put the Wildcats back ahead. Wilcox was fouled by Johnson shooting a 3-pointer and after a timeout, hit two of three to tie the game at 50-50 with 3:05 left.
Shawn Kemp Jr., split free throws before Johnson scored on a runner in the lane to put the Wildcats up 52-51 with 2 minutes left. N'Diaye was fouled, but the 46 percent free-throw shooter missed both and Hill knocked down a jumper, only to have Suggs quickly answer on a drive with 1:08 left.
Miller decided to regroup and called a timeout with 51 seconds left. Off the inbounds pass, Johnson quickly got into the lane and was fouled with 41 seconds left. His first free throw rattled in and out and he made the second to put Arizona up 55-53. Washington tried to run the backdoor lob and when that failed, its chances at the upset were over.
"To win on the road when you don't play offense well or have a half like we did, I think is a telling sign that hopefully our future is filled with some good moments," Miller said.