March 23, 2010
By TIM BOOTH
AP SPORTS WRITER
SEATTLE -- Don't try to tell Washington that its wins over Marquette and New Mexico in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were upsets.
The Huskies expected to win both games, even as a No. 11 seed entering the tournament. Confidence comes when a team loaded with talent and high preseason expectations finally starts living up to its lofty billing of four months ago.
"We knew that we were a good team coming into the season and lot of people expected us to do well and we weren't able to do that during the season," said guard Elston Turner, who has had a huge role in recent weeks. "We had our highs and lows and a lot of people doubted us, but we kept it going and we had faith in ourselves and our coaches and we knew at some point it was going to start clicking. We're glad that point is now."
Thanks to a nine-game winning streak and their two tournament victories the Huskies are back in the round of 16 for the first time since 2006 and just fifth time under the current tournament format.
And now Washington (26-9) gets its shot at making some real noise when it faces No. 2 seed West Virginia on Thursday night in the East Regional semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y. Since reaching the Final Four in 1953, Washington has never advanced past the round of 16.
"It's big. It's big for myself to be in this position," Washington star Quincy Pondexter said. "As a senior you want to go out with the best ending possible. It adds to the legacy but I just want to see this team go as far as possible. I don't care about anything else personally."
Two months ago, the NCAA tournament was the least of Washington's concerns. They were a dysfunctional unit who thrived at home, but struggled on the road and often disintegrated when things didn't go the Huskies' way. They were 3-5 in conference play and about to take their place among this season's biggest underachievers.
No one's quite sure what the lowest of the low was. It could have been the consecutive 17-point losses at Arizona and Arizona State that knocked Washington from the rankings, after getting as high as No. 12 in December, the buzzer-beating loss at UCLA or the 26-point rout two nights later against Southern California.
"Timing, the ball wasn't bouncing our way, I don't know. Things weren't clicking the way they are (now) and we've found the (key) to winning games," Pondexter said. "With that formula we've been playing great basketball."
The depths of the Huskies' struggles have made the turnaround that much sweeter. Their nine-game winning streak is the longest since an 11-game winning streak early in the 2006 season. They are 14-2 since Jan. 26, with nine of those victories coming away from home or on a neutral floor.
In the last nine games the Huskies are shooting 50 percent and outscoring their opponents by an average of 12 points per game. In other words, this is the team everyone expected to see back in November, except now without the hype.
"It all doesn't really matter to me, as long as we're winning games," forward Justin Holiday said. "Having attention, not having attention doesn't really matter. At the end of the day we're going to do what we have to and get wins."
Washington got back to the regional semifinals by edging Marquette 80-78 on Pondexter's driving basket with 1.7 seconds left, then dominating New Mexico 82-64 in the second round. With those wins has come the type of attention the Huskies were getting at the start of the year.
But the regional semifinals have been a different story for the program. In 1998, also as a No. 11 seed, the Huskies were burned at the buzzer by Connecticut and Richard Hamilton and lost 75-74. Eight years later, Connecticut clipped the Huskies again, this time 98-92 in overtime after UConn's Rashad Anderson hit a 3-pointer at the end of regulation to force overtime.
Washington also lost to Dayton 64-58 in 1984 and Louisville 93-79 in 2005 in the regional semis.
"When you get to the Sweet 16, all week you are reminded that you are in the final 16 and it's really, really special," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "You are one weekend away from the Final Four."