March 12, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LOS ANGELES - His teammates lifted Isaiah Thomas on their shoulders at center court amid a sea of purple, and the Huskies star pumped both his arms toward the ceiling of Staples Center.
Consider that roof raised.
Thomas played all 45 minutes, scored 28 points and stepped back to hit the game-winning, 18-foot jumper as time expired in overtime to send third-seeded Washington over top-seeded Arizona 77-75 in the wild, thrilling and oh-so-sweet championship game of the Pac-10 tournament.
And get this: It almost didn't happen.
After Arizona's Kevin Parrom tied the game at 75 with a 3-pointer with 19 seconds left in overtime, Thomas dribbled into the frontcourt against the Wildcats' Lamont Jones. Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar was beginning to call time out with his hands on the final possession, but Thomas waved him off from the middle of the court.
"I told Romar, 'No, don't call time out. I want to create my own shot. I want to be the one to win the championship," Thomas told me amid purple-and-gold bedlam minutes after the win.
He was watching his teammates cut down the first strands of the net, standing in the fittingly gold-painted lane 2 feet from where the signature shot of his three-year Huskies career - heck, one of the most clutch shots in UW history -- swished through.
So ended three wondrous days in L.A. for UW, after a thrilling rally past Washington State Thursday and a rout of fellow-rival Oregon in Friday's semifinals.
"One of these days when I'm not coaching anymore, I'll sit back in the rocking chair and reminisce about this game -- reminisce about how Isaiah Thomas flagged off his coach," Romar joked. "No, I'll remember a lot of things about this tournament. And they are all good."
As if he hadn't done enough already, Thomas also broke the record of mentor Gary Payton and two others with 30 assists in the tournament, including seven on Saturday. He was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
Duh. Who else could it have been?
"I just wanted to win, man," he said, sounding as tired as he looked.
The 12,074 inside Staples Center and the entire nation watching on television knew Thomas would take the last shot. With about 5 seconds to go, the left-hander who loves that side like all of UW loves him right now made a killer crossover dribble move to his left, about 15 feet from the basket to the left of the lane. That created space from Jones. Thomas then coolly leaped, leaned away from the hard-charging Jones and lofted a high-arcing shot just inside the 3-point line - and just over Jones' extended arm.
The ball swished through the net at the exact instant time expired. The mighty, 5-foot-8 Thomas roared, flexed to the delirious purple crowd nearest to him, then collapsed onto the floor -- first to his knees, then onto his back. His teammates mobbed him while he was still there on court, sprawled out and face up.
The Wildcats, the regular-season conference champions, fell to the floor, too, prone and stunned.
"He was so confident at that point, I knew he was going to take this thing on his own shoulders - not for him, for the whole team," Romar said of the time out he's sure glad he didn't call. "He said, 'I'm going to win this championship."
Freshman Terrence Ross, making his third consecutive start after not starting all regular season, scored 17 points, and the Huskies (23-10) withstood foul trouble almost from tipoff and a month of turmoil and poor play to win the league's tournament again. Last year's title propelled the Dawgs to the Sweet 16s of the NCAA tournament.
Woof it up, Dawg fans. UW is back in "The Dance." The Huskies will found out Sunday where they are going, who they will play in the first round and whether they will begin play on Thursday or Friday. "We've gone through everything you can think off, on the court and off. I mean, we've gone through walls," senior co-captain Justin Holiday said. "This shows we can go as far as we want to. We've seen everything, in basketball and in life."
It was a rollicking ride home, yet another for a Husky team returning from Southern California. These Dawgs won for the eighth consecutive time in L.A. The football team won at USC in October, and then in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego in December.
As their Alaska Airlines flight lifted away from Los Angeles International Airport and over the Pacific Ocean four hours after Thomas' shot swished, the Huskies band serenaded the players with "Bow Down to Washington." The players responded with a comical remix, led by Darnell Gant.
That wasn't all Gant led on Saturday. With a dozen friends and family in the seats watching the L.A.-area native, Gant made hustle plays kept alive multiple key possessions in the second half. He ended up with eight rebounds, a night after getting a career-high 10 in the rout of Oregon in the semifinals.
Romar cut down the final strand of net from the rim and put it around his neck commemorating his third Pac-10 tournament title since he became coach in 2002, then raised his both arms in triumph. A half hour later, after seemingly endless interviews, Thomas shuffled into the Huskies' locker room. His legs aching and body drained, he sighed and said, "Can I get a chair?"
"I was exhausted at halftime," said Thomas, who played 123 1/2 of a possible 125 minutes of the tournament, perhaps the guttiest three consecutive days of games in UW history.
"Oh, my God! That was crazy!" exclaimed C.J. Wilcox, the steely redshirt freshman who sent the game into overtime with a cold-blooded 3-pointer from the corner and only 7 seconds left in regulation. That capped UW's rally from four points down with 26 seconds to go.
"Isaiah gave me a great pass. I had to make it," Wilcox said of his shot that tied it at 68 through 40 minutes.
Ever the coach, Romar rushed out of the locker room to recruit a high-school game in suburban L.A. Saturday night. Asked as he was leaving how he would rank this wild title game - it had eight ties and 12 lead changes -- with the two other Pac-10 tournament titles, the multiple Sweet 16 appearances and the regular-season league title a couple years ago that he's won in his nine years at UW, Romar smiled.
"It ranks up there pretty high, given the circumstances," he said.
Those concerned about the short turnaround forgot this was the exact scenario that played out last year for Washington in this tournament. The resilient Huskies -- a third seed and doubted then, too -- won consecutive night-owl games to advance to a Saturday afternoon title game. That was also against the regular-season conference champion with which UW had split two previous games, California. Those Huskies raced to a high-intensity win - and kept racing all the way into the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament.
Derrick Williams, the conference's player of the year, scored 24 points and had 11 rebounds for Arizona (27-7). UW denied the Wildcats their fifth Pac-10 tournament title, in the first league championship game to go to overtime.
After Thomas' vintage scoring performance of 19 in the first half, he got help in the second.
Ross came out smokin' following the break, erasing UW's three-point deficit by scoring seven points in the first six minutes of the second half. His alley-ooop dunk off a pass by Thomas that soared toward the Lakers' title banners here put Washington ahead 44-43, and the game's intensity cranked up noticeably from there.
At one point, Thomas came into the huddle during a timeout and told his teammates, "I believe in you."
Later in the half during another timeout, he had a command for Bryan-Amaning: "I'm tired man. I'm not worried about scoring, so when I get you the ball just score. Don't pass it back to me."
Yet Arizona kept coming, and Washington kept getting more players into foul trouble. Bryan-Amaning and N'Diaye each had four for the final 5 minutes trying to deny Williams. But Arizona's star made two free throws to put Arizona back ahead by 1 with 2:56 left.
Thomas was then called for a charge, and Jones put Arizona ahead 63-59 with 1:42 left. Washington went 6 minutes without a basket while the Wildcats took the lead, until Thomas hit a 3-pointer with 32.7 seconds left to get UW within 63-62.
The Huskies' game plan of feeding Bryan-Amaning and attacking Williams inside changed when MBA picked up two fouls in the first 7 minutes for the third consecutive game. Denied a post option, with 7-foot sophomore N'Diaye continuing to struggle offensively, Thomas simply took over.
"Physically, to play 45 minutes, three games and three days is almost impossible," Arizona coach Sean Miller marveled. "He made a step-back 3, third game in three days in the 45th minute that he's played. "So give credit where credit is due."