Washington acted like a toddler in discovery much of the year.
Once upright, photos and applause resulted. Inevitably, progress was followed by a wobble and crash.
The largest flop came Selection Sunday when the Huskies were left out of the NCAA Tournament by a large margin. Washington was not rated the 69th best team in the country by the selection committee. Far from it.
So, Monday morning, coach Lorenzo Romar was not sure. Reminded of the swaying season behind him, Romar was asked what could be anticipated Tuesday night.
“We’re better off today then we had been,” Romar said. “So, we’ll see.”
What he saw was fierce.
Washington beat Oregon 90-86 in a vengeance-fueled quarterfinal of the National Invitation Tournament. The Huskies advanced to the NIT semifinals March 27 in Madison Square Garden, where they will play the winner of Wednesday’s game between Middle Tennessee State and Minnesota.
There were technical aspects Washington handled well Tuesday. Just eight turnovers. Lapses were minimal. Most telling, the Huskies did not wilt.
Depth of character has been a question. Blowouts, coupled with folds in tight games, made the Huskies a conundrum this season.
Abdul Gaddy showed mettle when taking charges.
Terrence Ross shouted when he scored after being fouled.
C.J. Wilcox was stern with the ball when Oregon began the swiping and hacking as time ran away from the Ducks’ season.
It was the type of toughness by three laid-back players Washington had only flirted with this year.
Washington pushed out by 10 in the second half with 7:27 left on a 3-pointer by Wilcox. Tony Wroten -- owner of a swollen, exquisite line: 22 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two turnovers, a block and steal -- shoved a basket through to set the lead back to nine with 3:48 remaining.Three minutes later, the lead was two. Wroten dunked in transition, the second time he chose to attack instead of run clock, and Oregon sprinted back to get a wide-open 3 from the previously shackled Devoe Joseph.
Then, an odd thing happened. Washington executed. UW moved the ball to Wilcox, who closed down the game with six consecutive free throws.
Oregon coach Dana Altman went through the handshake line as if he was leaving a house fire. He was so furious at the referees, his assistants begged him not to get a technical. He’s a contradiction -- speaking with the always disarming Midwest accent, but underneath, he’s a ferocious coach.
Oregon packed up its band and covered its shiny cheerleaders. Romar headed to the sideline microphone to sing a single, hoarse bar of “New York, New York.”
The fun he promised his players was finally delivered by a dispatching of the Ducks.
Washington had asked for this match-up. But not this tournament.
“It’s hard to really get motivated for this tournament,” fifth-year senior Darnell Gant said. “Especially for me, being in the NCAA Tournament all my years. Every time we looked at this, it was like, ‘Aw, we better not play in the NIT.’ Then dudes was like, ‘We don’t want to play in the NIT, we want to go home.’ "
Instead, they will keep adding, Wroten in particular.
He set the freshman season scoring record Tuesday. He has 550 points, passing Isaiah Thomas’ 541 points in 2009. Wroten bulled his way into the Huskies’ record books this year. He has the frosh record for points, assists and steals. He also owns the school’s all-time single-season turnover record with 131 and counting. He has 130 assists.
Tuesday was likely the final home show for Wroten and Ross. Each is projected as a first-round NBA draft pick of varying levels. The official word will come by April 10, but the overwhelming sense is departures are likely.
That leaves the New York trek as one of salvation. Washington will again stand in Madison Square Garden, atop the floor where 80 minutes of not-quite-good-enough play in December was part of the reason UW is in the NIT.
“Our guys don’t understand it now because they’re younger, but when you look back about 10 or 15 years from now, this is something you can really appreciate,” Romar said. “The extra time you spend together, because this same group will never be together again.”
It’s not the NCAA Tournament. But they are better off today than they were.