CHARLOTTE, N.C. - If you're going to travel 2,800 miles, you might as well stick around a while.
The Washington Huskies extended their North Carolina trip another couple of days by holding on for a 68-65, down-to-the-wire win over Georgia on Friday night in the NCAA tournament East Regional.
And speaking of North Carolina, Washington will meet the No. 2 seeded Tar Heels at 9:15 a.m. PDT on Sunday for a date in the Sweet 16. UNC advanced with a 102-87 win over Long Island just before the Huskies and Bulldogs took the court at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“There was a lot of Carolina blue at that game,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “They’re well-coached. They have three guys that scored over 20. They can be a pretty imposing basketball team. So we have a lot of respect for North Carolina. But we like our team as well, so we’re going to prepare and see what happens.”
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The Huskies have another game to prepare for because they survived an opener in which conventional wisdom was turned on its head.
It had been assumed by some that because Washington (24-10) is deeper than Georgia, that it would be the Huskies who would have the advantage in the closing minutes of a tight game.
Instead, it was the Bulldogs who ended the game on a charge, clipping all but three points off what had been a double-digit UW lead just two minutes earlier.
Georgia (21-12) even had a chance to wipe away those last three points, but Travis Leslie’s desperation 3-point try banged off the backboard at the buzzer.
“I (saw) it fall out of Isaiah Thomas’ hands,” Leslie said. “It was open, so I went for it, tried to throw up a lucky shot, but it didn’t fall.”
Leaping and deflecting the pass that eventually got to Leslie was the last of Thomas’ many contributions. The junior from Tacoma led the Huskies with 19 points, seven assists and two steals. He also was instrumental in a second-half run, when UW finally got separation from the Bulldogs, after the teams had been even at halftime.
At one stretch while the Huskies seemed to be pulling away, Thomas faked Georgia guard Dustin Ware off his feet and went around him for a short jumper, laughing as it sank.
The next trip he beat Ware again, but missed the shot. The next trip, he beat him again, scoring this time and throwing a long glance to his father, James Thomas, in the stands.
“I had one-on-one matchups, and I took advantage of it, and my teammates did a great job of finding me,” Thomas said. “I look at my dad a lot in the game. I don’t know why; I just always have.”
The Huskies started the game with a lineup altered from the one that had swept to the Pacific-10 Conference tournament last week, bringing junior forward Darnell Gant in for guard C.J Wilcox in an effort to make life harder on Georgia’s 6-foot-10 All-Southeastern Conference forward Trey Thompkins.
The experiment didn’t last long, as Gant picked up two fouls in the first two minutes, forcing various Huskies to try their hand with Thompkins.
And ultimately it didn’t really matter what Washington tried, as Thompson forged game highs with 26 points and 11 rebounds.
“We were concerned with Georgia’s inside game,” Romar said. “Trey Thompkins is a big basketball player.”
While Georgia had Thompkins, Washington had numbers.
Eight Huskies scored Friday, while only five Bulldogs did – and only three in the first half. The UW bench outscored the Bulldog reserves 28-0.
Washington could face something similar Sunday when the Huskies face a North Carolina team that got 84 of its 102 points Friday from three forwards: Tyler Zeller (32), John Henson (28) and Harrison Barnes (24).
“Carolina’s longer (than we are),” said Georgia coach Mark Fox. “I think they’ll match up pretty well. But Washington is so good, and they’re so balanced offensively, that they’ll take advantage of whatever the defense gives them, and it should be a heck of a ball game.”