LOS ANGELES - In a mid-March game with implications that could linger deep into the month, Washington came from 13 points behind and finally defeated rival Washington State, 89-87, in the quarterfinals of the Pacific-10 Conference tournament at Staples Center.
“Just a great gut-check, character win for our team,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “In the second half we laid everything out there on the floor.”
In the first half, the Huskies fell behind by as many as 13 points against a team that had swept them in the regular season. But they caught up and then won a back-and-forth second half with a balanced offense in which all five starters scored in double figures.
Leading the way was junior guard Isaiah Thomas, who provided 21 points and 11 assists while playing the full 40 minutes in the absence of Venoy Overton, who sat out due to a suspension.
“Isaiah Thomas played a game for the ages,” Romar said. “A lot of guys stepped up. Our two freshmen (C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross) stepped up and played well. The second half, Matthew (Bryan-Amaning) played well. Klay Thompson was really good.”
Thompson wasn’t only good, he was record-setting good. The Cougars’ all-conference guard scored 43 points – a tournament record – but it wasn’t quite enough.
“He was the main guy scoring,” Romar said. “Our guys, I think the press really helped us. We spread it around, and we had a number of guys step up to make shots.”
It could prove to be an exceptionally valuable victory. Because if seeding counts for anything, the path to the tournament title game got a bit easier just before the Washington schools took the floor of Staples Center on Thursday.
An upset loss by second-seeded UCLA means that only the No. 7 Oregon Ducks – who will be playing their third game in three nights – stand between the Huskies and the Pac-10 title game Saturday afternoon.
During the regular season, Washington split with Oregon, beating the Ducks, 87-69, in Seattle on Jan. 6, but losing, 81-76, in Eugene on Feb. 5.
On Thursday, Romar unveiled a new-look starting lineup. Along with regulars Thomas, Justin Holiday and Bryan-Amaning, he inserted Wilcox, making his fourth college start, and Ross, making his first.
Ross made the most of his opportunity with 17 points, including 13 in the first half.
However, the rest of the formula began melting into goo less than two minutes in, as All-Pac-10 first team forward Bryan-Amaning picked up two quick fouls and was replaced by yet another player in his first NCAA season: Aziz N’Diaye.
Combined with Thompson’s sizzling start, the Cougars drew away from the Huskies almost instantly – their lead reaching 13 points after about 10 minutes.
“Klay was awesome. he’s the best player in our league,” said WSU point guard Reggie Moore, who was still nursing an ankle injury.
The Huskies trimmed their deficit to 40-32 at halftime, and then opened the second half with a pressing defense that powered a 10-0 run to take the lead.
However, WSU weathered the storm, answered and reclaimed the lead with a run of its own. Then UW moved back ahead. Then WSU again. Then UW.
March Madness did not earn it’s name for nothing.
The highlight sequence may have come around the five-minute mark when WSU evaporated a six-point UW lead with back-to-back 3s by Moore and Thompson. Then Wilcox restored the six-point lead and more with two treys of his own.
It went down to the final minute, when Thompson finally missed shots his team couldn’t survive: first a free throw to tie, then a 3-pointer to tie.
The Huskies finally put it away when Romar coached against his track record: choosing to foul on WSU’s final possession, giving up two free throws rather than facing a potential tying 3-pointer.
For both schools much of the importance of this tournament is related to the next tournament: ideally the NCAA rather than the NIT.
Until Thursday, bracketology generally placed Washington on the safe side of the bubble, Washington State on the dangerous side.
This result may have been the clincher for the Huskies, while also likely forcing the Cougars to await a Selection Sunday phone call from the NIT.