Citizen Staff Writer
SEATTLE – For the Arizona men’s basketball team, now may be the time to panic.
The Wildcats fell to host Washington 75-66 at Bank of America Arena on Thursday night, putting them at 16-10 overall and more importantly at below .500 in the Pacific-10 Conference at 6-7.
UA could drop from fifth to eighth or ninth in the conference if it loses at No. 17 Washington State on Saturday.
What’s worse is UA isn’t playing well down the stretch. Foul trouble and poor shooting plagued the Cats on Thursday.
How a team finishes is something the NCAA Tournament committee looks at with a jeweler’s eye when selecting teams for March Madness. UA’s string of 23 straight tourneys, the nation’s longest current streak, may be in jeopardy.
“It’s frustrating because I want to get to the NCAA Tournament,” said UA’s Jawann McClellan, who had 19 points. “I don’t want to be that group where the (streak) is broken.”
UA needs at least two wins, McClellan believes, in its last five regular season games. Three wins would give Arizona a safer 9-9 Pac-10 mark, but USC and UCLA loom next week.
“We have to find a way to do it,” McClellan said. “We have to stick together and play well.”
Or at least better. Arizona has lost four of five and two straight.
“It’s been tough since November 4,” said Kevin O’Neill, referring to the date he took over for head coach Lute Olson, who has been on leave. “Nobody said it was going to be easy. Injuries have debilitated us because of our roster. What we’ve got to do is find a way to get two or three more wins.
“We are who we are.”
In the eyes of O’Neill – and many others – UA is a worn-down team with key injuries to guard Nic Wise and forward Bret Brielmaier.
“We don’t have enough guys,” said O’Neill. “Come on, we can sit here all we want but they threw 10 guys at us and rotated at us all night and wore us down.”
Said McClellan: “Bret knows his role and is tough. And Nic can blow by people. We don’t have that now. We’re missing a lot with just those two guys out.”
The Cats turned in one of their poorest performances of the season Thursday. They did make a couple of last-ditch runs. One came with nine minutes left, when UA trailed 52-39. It outscored the Huskies 10-0 to make it close, but then fell victim to poor decisions and turnovers.
“We still had our chances to win,” McClellan said.
Trailing 68-56 with just more than 2:00 left, UA cut it to 68-61 on McClellan’s 3-pointer before resorting to fouling the Huskies. Washington made its free throws down the stretch, despite being the Pac-10′s worst foul shooting team at 58.5 percent.
UA’s Chase Budinger, who scored just 10 points on 3 for 10 shooting, fouled out with 5:12 left.
Freshman Jerryd Bayless scored 22 points, but it wasn’t enough.
“They pretty much shut Chase and me down,” said Bayless, who went 6 for 19 from the floor. “That was their plan, obviously.”
UA big man Jordan Hill played with four fouls for the game’s final 14 minutes.
Bayless had three fouls in the first half, and Budinger had two in the half before picking up his fourth with 11 minutes left.
“The foul trouble got us,” O’Neill said. “I can’t blame our guys. We have to play. It’s hard to do what they are doing. It’s unfortunate.”
UA couldn’t stop guard Venoy Overton, who had 19 points – 14.5 more than his average.
Overton went 6 for 6 from the free-throw line and had eight straight points as the Huskies pulled away with 6:00 left in the game. Overton fouled out with 2:53 left.
“I know that is what he is capable of doing,” Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Tonight he was very focused.”
UA also had trouble stopping Washington big man Jon Brockman, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds.
Arizona trailed at halftime 28-27. UA shot 38.5 percent from the floor; Washington shot 36.4 percent.
It was so difficult for the teams to score, they didn’t reach the 20-point mark until five minutes were left in the half.
UA’s halftime point total was just five more than its season low for a half – 22 against UCLA last month. Ryan Appleby’s six points paced the Huskies in the first half.
Arizona got into foul trouble early with Bayless and Budinger each picking up two quick fouls.
Instead of sitting them out to save them for the second half, O’Neill decided to play the two with the hope they wouldn’t get in further foul trouble.
Hill picked up his second foul with 9:01 left and was removed in favor of Fendi Onobun.
“We were trying everything,” O’Neill said. “Their bench outscored us 23-3 and against Stanford it was 20-0.”
O’Neill said he does not have any mojo left to turn it around.
“The magic dust is Nic needs to be playing,” he said. “Nic is the magic dust. We need him back healthy. We will and go from there.”
McClellan kept the Cats close. He hit his first three shots and had eight of UA’s 14 points in the first nine minutes.
Both teams started out hot, with Washington going 6 for 8 from the field. Then the Huskies hit just one of their next nine shots. UA wasn’t much better. After starting 4 for 5, Arizona went 1 for 4.
The teams suffered through a number of silly turnovers early, but UA never solved the problem. The Cats finished with 17 for the game; the Huskies had eight.
“We just have to move on,” Bayless said. “We’ve got to try to win the next one.”
If not, the Cats could be wallowing near the bottom of the Pac-10, facing must-win games against USC and No. 6 UCLA at McKale before going to Oregon.
It won’t be an easy task.
With 10:34 left, Venoy Overton took over, scoring 11 of Washington’s 18 points to give the Huskies a 63-53 lead with about 5:00 left.
BY THE NUMBERS
Points by UA’s bench.
Shots made by Chase Budinger and Jerryd Bayless in 29 attempts.
Turnovers by UA.
To UW’s Jon Brockman, who had 15 points and 15 rebounds.
To Chase Budinger, who continues to struggle from the floor. He went 3 for 10 for just 10 points.
Player of the game
UW’s Venoy Overton, who had 19 points, 14.5 more than his season average.