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Originally published March 3, 2011 at 9:49 PM | Page modified March 4, 2011 at 7:39 PM

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Steve Kelley

A freshman delivers at most critical time

The Huskies got CPR from C.J. and he might have saved the season.

Seattle Times staff columnist

It started with a curl, a pass from Isaiah Thomas, and a jump shot as smooth as glass.

And after that first reassuring shot, each C.J. Wilcox jumper looked prettier than its predecessor.

A ball fake and a swish. One dribble and up and another pure "J." A pass from Justin Holiday and a trey. Another pass from Venoy Overton and a foul from Jerime Anderson on a three-point attempt.

In the second half of this tight-as-a-fist game with UCLA, Wilcox, the redshirt freshman with the good-as-gold stroke, carried Washington with his tsunami of threes.

With Thomas scoreless at halftime and Matthew Bryan-Amaning still unable to finish at the rim, the Huskies started the second half down by one and desperate for somebody to wake them from their weeklong lethargy.

The Huskies (20-9) needed some air. They needed somebody to trigger their offense, somebody to bring them back from the brink and remind them of who they are.

They got CPR from C.J., and he might have saved the season. He busted them free from the recent claustrophobic showings. He made Hec Ed feel like home again.

Wilcox, who has been in a shooting slump because of a series of injuries he'd suffered, scored all of his 24 points in the second half, made 7 of 8 field-goal attempts and was 4 of 5 from three-point range in Washington's 70-63 win over the Bruins.

"I don't think I've ever been a part of a game where a player like C.J. Wilcox did what he did in the second half," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I've never seen a freshman do what he did in the second half, and I was part of a (NCAA) championship team.

"You rarely see a freshman, unless he's one of those heralded one-and-done freshmen, put a team on his back like he did in the second half."

Considering the importance of the game and the time of year, it was one of the most remarkable, clutch performances in Washington basketball history. And it was as necessary as oxygen.

"We see it every day in practice," senior guard Overton said.

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Just a day earlier at practice, Romar made Wilcox run a line because Wilcox wasn't taking the shots Romar thought needed to be taken. Wilcox has a green light, it's just that sometimes he needs to be reminded of that.

Lesson learned.

At the start of the second half, Romar began calling plays for Wilcox. He never stopped calling them.

"About the third shot he made, I knew he was hot," senior forward Holiday said. "I said, 'OK, he was the scoring option to go to.' "

And, while Wilcox got the shots, Washington's defense got the stops. Unlike Washington's loss Sunday to Washington State, the Huskies maintained their defensive focus for 40 minutes.

Now, if the Huskies can beat USC at home on Saturday, they will assure themselves a place in the NCAA tournament, probably as an eight or nine seed.

Their mission between now and then is to rediscover their confidence, to relax and find a way to play free and loose again, like every game is a home game.

Since the season started in November, the Huskies had owned their building. Despite all of their problems on the road, Hec Ed was Washington's safe haven.

This is where they ran and gunned, where the three-pointers rained so softly and the defense turned up the heat so high Hec Ed felt like Hades. This is where the Huskies dictated tempo. They played their game — fast, faster, fastest.

Then came the Washington State game on Sunday and UCLA on Thursday night, and suddenly the Huskies looked as if they were on the road, at home.

This team that used to play as if it was "Showtime" suddenly was playing like "Slowtime."

In the first halves of their past two games, the Huskies have shot a combined 15 for 59. They've scored a total of 41 points in the past two first halves, which for most of this home season would have been just a below-average half.

But, in Thursday's second half, C.J. happened.

Get used to it. Wilcox is going to be doing this for a long time at Washington. He is going to be the ultimate offensive option in every big game the Huskies play from now until 2014.

On Thursday night, up by only three inside of three minutes, he popped open for another jumper, just inside the arc, was whacked on the head by Anderson with one red second left on the shot clock, made the shot and converted the and-one free throw.

A crowd that had been waiting to exhale thundered its appreciation for the freshman, who had reminded everyone how wonderful and maddening college basketball in March can be.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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