March 10, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LOS ANGELES - Isaiah Thomas was the last guy inside the Huskies' locker room. He was soaking in a well-earned ice bath following the only 40-minute, no-rest game of his brilliant career.
It was the first thing to cool him off all night.
The midseason candidate for national player of the year scored 21 points, had 11 assists and led a frenetic, pressing defense coming out of halftime to rally the resilient, third-seeded Huskies from 13 points down to a wild, 89-87 win over archrival Washington State Thursday night. It was the last and by far the best of four Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals at Staples Center.
"I yelled at the guys and was telling them, `We don't want to go home yet!'" Thomas said, referring to the team's belief that a third loss this season to WSU would have ended NCAA tournament hopes for Washington (21-10).
And Washington moved into Friday night's semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Pacific time against Oregon.
The seventh-seeded Ducks (16-16) blew out second-seeded UCLA in Thursday night's earlier game. UW beat Oregon in Seattle, then lost in Eugene in February during the Huskies' mystifying, three-game losing streak in early February.
Who said these Huskies don't have resolve?
They were down eight at halftime to WSU. Then they immediately went on a 10-0 run sparked by vintage, intense, full-court pressure to take their first lead, only to fall behind by seven with 14:48 left. They absorbed Klay Thompson's tournament-record 43 points -- I was like, `Man, was that Kobe?" Thomas joked.
But, wait, there's more: They had their senior co-captain, Justin Holiday, shaking off the effects of a concussion. They had senior point guard, Venoy Overton, on their bench in a purple polo shirt, on suspension for the Pac-10 tournament for a legal issue that is not yet resolved. They had second-leading scorer Matthew Bryan-Amaning on the bench with early foul trouble.
Whatever. The don't-count-us-out Huskies overcame all that to win a remarkable game they absolutely had to have.
"We've had bigger wins in the past. But I don't know if we've had a more timely win," coach Lorenzo Romar said, looking relieved and spent just outside the team's temporary home in the locker room of the NBA's Clippers.
Terrence Ross made his first career start and answered the need for more offense with 17 points - five days after not playing at all. Bryan-Amaning returned from the early fouls and a long time on the bench to score 16 points, with seven rebounds. And C.J. Wilcox erupted for 16 points - including three critical 3-pointers in a row late in the game.
The thriller was tied at 73 with 5:18 remaining when Wilcox apparently began thinking WSU's maroon jerseys were UCLA's baby blue ones. The redshirt freshman, who scored 24 points last week in the second half to beat the Bruins, made three consecutive 3-pointers. Faster than you can say, "It's about time," Washington led 82-75 with 3:49 left.
To Wilcox, it was fulfilling a call to duty.
"Coach starts drawing up plays for you, and you feel you have a responsibility to step up and known down shots," he said.
WSU kept coming, pulling within one on Thompson's eighth made 3-pointer in 13 tries, and then his free throw with 49 seconds to go. But then the irrepressible Thomas scored on a drive with 39 seconds remaining to put UW up 86-83. Thompson missed an open 3-pointer, but Bryan-Amaning missed for UW.
After a layup by Thompson, Thomas - not to be denied -- answered him again with a drive and score inside to make it 88-85 Washington. WSU called its final timeout, to set up the tying 3. But the break worked even better for UW. It gave Romar an opportunity to instruct his Huskies to foul and send WSU to the line for a one-and-one, instead of playing it out and affording WSU a potential tying 3-point shot that Thompson undoubtedly would have attempted.
He never got the chance. The Huskies pressed to slow the Cougars up the floor and use time, then UW's Scott Suggs did just as Romar instructed: He fouled Reggie Moore about 40 feet from the basket with 2 seconds left.
More zaniness followed. Moore missed the free throw, and Thompson scored on a put back for WSU's 18th second-chance point of the night. Washington State coach Ken Bone yelled "Time O ... " and claimed he didn't finish the command. But the official called the time out WSU didn't have, and the Cougars were assessed a technical foul with 0.4 seconds remaining.
Wilcox made one free throw, then Holiday -- who finished with 12 points and a game-high 10 rebounds -- threw the subsequent inbounds pass from backcourt to frontcourt into a crowd of players to end this wild night.
Now UW's return to the NCAA tournament is a lot more plausible.
"That was probably the most emotional game yet for me," said Ross, who won a state championship at Portland's Jefferson High School, "because we realized this could be it."
The Huskies lost by seven at WSU (19-12) in January and by 11 to the Cougars in Seattle two weeks ago. And it looked like they were going to go down again.
Washington State held a 14-4 edge in second-chance points, led by as many as 13 in the first half, and by 40-32 at halftime.
Holiday, Bryan-Amaning and Thomas spoke up in the locker room during the break and told their teammates they weren't going out like this, giving less than a full-throttle performance.
And Romar reminded his Huskies they were down by more last March against a less-talented Oregon State team in the first round of this tournament - a tourney they ultimately won. The coach added they were playing better Thursday than they did while digging that early hole to the Beavers here last March.
Washington stormed out of the break with its signature, full-court pressure. The Cougars cowered during UW's 10-0 run. Holiday had five in the spurt. And Bryan-Amaning's acrobatic leap and tip in had UW up for the first time, 42-40, with 17:40 left.
The press jump-started the Huskies like they were back in January, 7-1 in the conference and ranked 15th in the country. They were running, pressing, stealing, getting put backs and fastbreak scores. The Dawgs exploded off their bench to greet their teammates on the floor when WSU finally called timeout to slow the run. Game - and season - transformed.
"Romar always talks about getting back to the old U-Dub, like we were playing in the beginning of the season," Ross said. Romar thought the press won the game.
"I thought it got our guys moving. It took the shackles off, where now we were not thinking, just reacting," Romar said.
Thomas' 11 assists were one-short of the conference-tournament record.
In search of the quick start and size at guard, Romar surprisingly started Ross. The streaky shooter justified Romar's decision by making his first shot, a 3-pointer, and scoring 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half. But he was still lacking defensively, not getting out quickly enough on WSU's open perimeter shooters, a reminder that defense is the reason Ross hasn't played more this season.
The choice was especially surprising because Ross did not play at all in Saturday night's regular-season finale against USC, and played just 4 minutes a week ago at home against UCLA.
"It was kind of shocking," Ross said of the decision Romar told him about on Monday. Shockingly good, it turned out.