There was no 22-point deficit for the Washington Huskies this time.
But no victory, either.
That wasn’t necessarily unexpected in this game against the USC Trojans at the Galen Center, where a lively crowd of 6,387 watched the home team dismantle Washington’s defense in a 98-88 win Saturday afternoon. The Huskies had already beaten UCLA on Thursday, and the idea of completing a road sweep — especially against the Trojans, who might be the Pac-12’s most talented team — felt like a little much.
Still, the Huskies left Los Angeles wishing they had offered at least some defensive resistance to USC’s balanced offensive attack after the Trojans shot 65.2 percent from the field in the second half and rammed their way to the free-throw line 37 times.
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This was a different kind of game from the one these teams played in Seattle on Jan. 3, when the Huskies erased a 22-point USC lead in the final 14 minutes to escape with an 87-85 victory.
The Trojans (17-5, 6-3 Pac-12) did not build such a margin Saturday — their largest lead was 13 points — but they led the entire second half and never led by fewer than six points in the final five minutes.
The Huskies (14-7, 6-3) didn’t roll over. They forced enough turnovers (16) and scored enough second-chance points (20) to stay in the game and give themselves a chance in the final minutes. But once again, they simply did not play much defense after halftime, and they failed to compile enough stops to really make it interesting.
“It just felt like there was that one hump we couldn’t get over,” said UW freshman Marquese Chriss, who scored 18 points and did not foul out for the first time in seven games. “Every time we got close, it seemed like they would make some free throws or they would make a shot. … It seemed like we couldn’t get past that little hump.”
That, UW coach Lorenzo Romar said, was because the Huskies “made some bad decisions” defensively.
“If you make a bad decision on USC,” Romar said, “you’re going to pay for it mightily. And that’s what happened.”
They must have made a lot of them. USC, which led 44-33 at halftime, shot 15 of 23 from the field in the second half and 32 of 37 from the free throw line for the game. With that in mind, it’s somewhat remarkable that UW trailed by only six points with four minutes to play — especially because the Huskies shot 36.4 percent from the field.
It didn’t help that freshman forward Noah Dickerson played only 16 minutes, limited by a left foot/ankle injury sustained during Thursday’s win at UCLA.
Andrew Andrews, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, made 3 of 14 from the field and finished with 15 points. But his free throws with 4:09 left in the game trimmed USC’s lead to 83-77. Dejounte Murray, UW’s star freshman guard, scrapped his way to 18 points, eight assists and three steals, and at times he kept the Huskies alive with some smooth offensive maneuvers.
But every time UW got close, USC scored. The Trojans went on a quick 8-3 run to push their lead to 91-80, and Nikola Jovanovic’s runout layup with a little more than a minute remaining made the score 93-82 and effectively ended the game.
“I feel like we tried,” Murray said. “We just came up short.”
Jovanovic, a 6-foot-11 junior, led the Trojans with 28 points. He made 10 of 13 from the field, most of them easy layups, and made eight of his nine free-throw attempts.
Jordan McLaughlin added 21 points. He made 9 of 10 at the foul line. Bennie Boatwright added 15 points. He made 8 of 10 at the foul line.
“We just made some silly mistakes,” Chriss said, “and got away from our principles of the defense and the things that we’re used to doing.”
The Trojans didn’t light it up from outside — they were a modest 6 of 18 from 3-point range, a few notches below their season average — but they converted 24 of their 40 attempts from inside the arc and made free throws at a rate much higher than usual.
These were UW’s issues, in part, as described by Romar: “Fouling when we didn’t need to, shot-clock running down. We lunge, we get out of position. Certain coverages we were supposed to execute that we didn’t, that we were aware of before the game. We’ve got to just keep working.”
Despite the loss, Romar and the Huskies — now tied for second place in the Pac-12 standings — will accept a split of this road trip. They return home for a Wednesday game against Arizona State, a team they already defeated in Tempe this season.
“This is the second time we’ve gotten a split on the road. We’ve not been swept yet,” Romar said. “So it was definitely a positive trip. Just wish it could have been a little more positive today.”
Game in review
Player of the game: USC forward Nikola Jovanovic was too much for the Huskies to handle inside. He led all scorers with 28 points and added five rebounds in 32 minutes. Jovanovic made 10 of 13 from the field and 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.
It was over when: Jovanovic got an easy, transition layup to give USC an 11-point lead with a little more than a minute remaining. The Huskies didn’t have a chance after that.
Stat of the game: USC entered the game shooting 66.8 percent from the free-throw line as a team, but made 32 of 37 (86.5 percent) against the Huskies.
Quotable: “You don’t want to lose both games on the road. You want to win both, but we split. We’re cool with it. We’ve just got to move on. This game’s over with. Now we’ve got to look forward to our next opponent at home.” — UW guard Dejounte Murray on this week’s road trip.
What it means: This isn’t a bad loss — USC might be the most talented team in the Pac-12, and the Huskies already salvaged a split of this road trip — but it’s concerning that UW continues to play such porous defense in the second half. This time, the Huskies allowed the Trojans to shoot 65.2 percent from the field after halftime, and Pac-12 opponents are shooting better than 50 percent against the Huskies in the second half of games. That trend can’t continue if UW is going to make the NCAA tournament.
Up next: Arizona State at Washington, 8 p.m. Wednesday, ESPNU.