Nov. 13, 2009
SEATTLE - Isaiah Thomas took a forearm to his chin from a bullish defender, then another to the side of his face.
Last season's Pac-10 freshman of the year just glared each time.
"Yeah, I don't know, man," Thomas said later, shaking his banged noggin. "The second time, he might have done it on purpose."
Yet the best shots were the ones with which he rocked Wright State.
Thomas answered Washington's call for more scoring this season with a career-high 30 points, and the No. 14 Huskies held on for a 74-69 victory over the Raiders on Friday night.
"I mean, I've been a scorer my whole life," said the state player of the year as a junior at Curtis High School in University Place, Wash. "Nothing too new."
Thomas was 7 of 14 from the field and a career-best 14 of 18 from the line, while mixing jumpers with darting drives past stunned Raiders. He had 18 points in the highest-scoring first half of his college career.
Yet the defending Pac-10 champions nearly frittered away an 18-point lead and their highest preseason ranking since 1985 on the opening night of the round-robin Athletes In Action Classic.
Asked if this is where he wants his remodeled team to be this early in the season, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar scoffed.
"No. That was one of my main concerns I had coming in," Romar said. "And these are the types of teams that can bite you in the preseason."
The Raiders did have bite _ albeit too late. The final score was the closest they got in the final 30 minutes.
Todd Brown scored 21 points and N'Gai Evans added 17 for the team picked to finish second this season in the Horizon League.
Brown kept them close early by scoring seven points, but during one stretch he didn't score for almost 15 minutes. Wright State fell behind by as many as 18 in Brown's dry spell.
"We just didn't play with the ferocity and physicality you need with a team with this much size and strength," coach Brad Brownell said. "I'm proud of the way we came back, but we did not play well in the first half."
Wright State was missing its other preseason selection for all Horizon League, Vaughn Duggins. The Raiders' leading returning scorer is suspended for all three weekend games in Seattle after being charged with driving under the influence this summer.
The Raiders were also missing point guard John David Gardner. He had hip surgery last month and may not play all weekend, Brownell said _ so their 49-31 deficit 3 minutes into the second half wasn't surprising.
But a 10-1 run, ended by a 3-pointer from Brown, rallied them to within 60-54 with 5 minutes left. A steal by Scott Grote and driving basket by Evans made it 64-58 with 2:51 left.
A free throw by Washington's Thomas, a turnover when Ronnie Thomas muffed an inbounds pass and a miss by Evans with 80 seconds left doomed Wright State's comeback.
Quincy Pondexter's lay-in off a whip pass from Venoy Overton put Washington up 68-58 in the final minute, and the Huskies plus their crowd finally exhaled. A 3-pointer by Cooper Land with 19.5 seconds left made it 71-65, but Scott Suggs made two clinching free throws.
With star Jon Brockman gone to the NBA, Washington is relying on Thomas to return his record-setting scoring roots from high school.
The scorching start equaled his highest scoring half at Washington. Thomas twice scored 18 points in the second half last season, against UCLA and Morgan State.
The 5-foot-8 dynamo had 14 points in the first 13 minutes of the game. His 3-point play while spinning past Evans and then banking in a shot as he fell across the base line was part of the Huskies' game-breaking, 11-0 run midway through the first half.
"Me scoring 30 points probably won't be good later in the season," Thomas said. "But like Coach Romar told us, tomorrow it will be somebody's else's night."
The four-team event will be only time this season Washington will play on consecutive days _ until, it hopes, the Pac-10 tournament in March.
On Saturday night, the Huskies face Belmont (1-0). The next day it's Portland State (0-1), which has made the NCAA tournament the last two springs.