March 20, 2012
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - From rock bottom to rockin' that New York flow again -- in one, zany week.
What a weird, wild ride this Huskies season has been.
"Complete turnaround," junior point guard Abdul Gaddy said in his all-smiles locker room on the most rollicking night of UW's extended run since the NCAA tournament told the Dawgs they weren't good enough for it.
"Everyone was down. Then getting that first win (in the NIT) changed the mentality. Now, we have a winning attitude. It's really changed -- and everybody is ready to go the New York."
That's where the Huskies are headed, for a second time in four months. This time it's with a chance to win a national championship, the NIT one reserved for those with chips on their shoulders the size of the NCAA.
Terrence Ross was exquisite shooting again, pouring in 24 more points. Gaddy was exquisite from everywhere with 11 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, plus defense all night in perhaps the finest game of his career.
Tony Wroten capped his 22-point, seven-rebound game by deftly getting the ball to C.J. Wilcox against a press that was swarming UW's leading foul shooter late. And Wilcox swished six consecutive free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal Washington's tense, 90-86 victory over some deflated Ducks in the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals Tuesday night at frenzied Alaska Airlines Arena.
Nine days after its schizophrenic season bottom out with a snub by the NCAA tournament selection committee, the top-seeded Huskies (24-10) are headed to New York for the NIT semifinals next Tuesday at approximately 6:20 p.m. Pacific time.
The first regular-season winners of a major conference to miss the NCAA tournament will play the winner of the NIT quarterfinal Wednesday between sixth-seeded Minnesota (21-14) and fourth-seeded Middle Tennessee State (27-6).
"We have a chance to win a national championship in the NIT, and I think that's number one," coach Lorenzo Romar said of the oldest college basketball tournament, now in its 75th year. "That, along with us being able to travel, playing in the Garden again."
Romar grabbed the home arena's public-address microphone for the second consecutive postgame minutes after the final horn. He told the roaring crowd, which shook the sides of old Hec Ed with at least five, thunderous "GO HUSKIES!" chants throughout the taut game: "If I wasn't so hoarse, I would start singin' `Start spreadin' the news...'
"You were awesome!" Romar rasped, through more cheers. "Thank you so much!"
And thank you.
The top-seeded Huskies now return to Madison Square Garden, where they narrowly lost to Marquette and Duke in early December. It is the first time the Huskies will play at the "World's Most Famous Arena" during the postseason in 76 years, since Washington finished third in the 1936 U.S. Olympic trials at the old MSG. That was months before Jesse Owens ran wild in front of Adolph Hitler at the Berlin Games.
"This just shows our maturity as a team, how far we have come," said senior captain Darnell Gant, minutes after becoming the first Husky men's basketball player with 100 career wins.
They've come from inexplicably losing by 25 last month at Oregon. From missing key free throws late while blowing an eight-point lead in their opening game in the Pac-12 tournament against Oregon State. To Tuesday, swishing the free throws when it counted most.
Wilcox's perfect 6-pack from the line to end the game capped UW going 27 for 35 on free throws. The 77 percent was the Huskies' fourth-best foul-throw shooting game this season.
How dialed in are the Dawgs to win this NIT? The team with a 61.6-percent rate on free throws this season has made 38 of 49 (78 percent) in home wins over Northwestern and Oregon to get to New York.
Ross is averaging 26.3 points over the three NIT games so far, 11 points above his regular-season average. Gaddy is averaging 7.7 assists per NIT game, almost three more per game than in the regular season.
This 292nd meeting of Dawgs and Ducks was thrilling from start to finish, with the two schools' bands even battling to win the noise-a-thon. No team led by more than four until Devoe Joseph made a 3-pointer to put Oregon up 46-39 with 93 seconds left in the first half.
The Huskies' defense allowed a season-high 56-percent shooting by Oregon last month, continually leaving Ducks open to shoot from outside and Joseph to shoot wherever he wanted while Oregon embarrassed Washington 82-57 in Eugene. In the first half Tuesday, the Huskies allowed Oregon (24-9) to shoot 53 percent.
E.J. Singler was open on many of his four makes in seven shots for 15 points, and center Tony Woods roamed free inside for 10 points. The lack of UW defense was most galling when Singler was wide open at the top of the 3-point arc for a basket late in the half - a no-no against a 2-3 zone defense Washington went to late in the period to combat Aziz N'Diaye, Wroten, Ross, and Wilcox having two fouls each.
Through all that, the Huskies were somewhat fortunate to be down only 46-42 at the break.
The message in UW's locker room at the half: "We have to get stops," Gaddy said.
Singler scored just four points on 1-of-5 shooting after halftime before fouling out late. Gaddy held Joseph to just 4 for 15 on the night, leaving the third-leading scorer in the Pac-12 this season 5 for 28 in two games in Seattle this year.
The defense sparked an 18-8 Huskies run midway through the second half. Gant and Wroten ran out for layups. Ross hit one of his three 3-pointers. Wroten, a 58-percent foul shooter, made four consecutive free throws. When Wilcox swished a 3 from the left wing with 7:27 left, UW suddenly led 75-65 -- and the 9,140 in the arena were so loud they might have been heard down in Eugene.
"Our fans were unbelievable," Romar said.
Wroten called them "the best fans in America."
Oregon fought back to within four with 2½ minutes to go. Then N'Diaye, a woeful 38 percent from the line on the season, made his third foul shot in a row by banking one in, of all things. As the crowd roared again, the 7-footer from Senegal shrugged sheepishly from the foul line.
With Washington leading 82-79 and Oregon poise to tie it, Gaddy beat Singler to the lane and planted his feet to draw a charge with 55 seconds to go. It was Singler's fifth foul, disqualifying the Ducks' scorer amid a mocking serenade from the Huskies' student section.
Ross got tied up in the backcourt by Oregon's press on the ensuing inbounds play. The ball caromed off Ross' leg across midcourt and through two more Ducks - right to the look-what-I-found Wroten. The Pac-12's freshman of the year broke from free for a fortunate, solo slam that signaled this was Washington's night, not Oregon's.
The final minute featured Wroten's smart, quick passes to Wilcox that forced the desperate Ducks to foul one of the top free-throw shooters in the Pac-12. Unlike late in the crushing loss to Oregon State in the conference tournament two weeks ago, Wilcox swished them all this time.
That put the Huskies back on Broadway.
"We're still playing," Gaddy said. "And we're playing with a chip on our shoulders. It was tough after the NCAA tournament didn't take us, but we moved past it."
Stylishly. And emphatically.
NOTES: Wroten added to his record-setting debut season by breaking Isaiah Thomas' Husky record for points by a freshman. Wroten now has 550 points, nine more than Thomas had in the 2008-09 season. Wroten was already UW's freshman record holder with 130 assists and 63 steals, and counting. ... Gant, a redshirt senior, is now 100-40 in his four seasons at Washington. He is also the only Husky to win four conference regular-season or tournament titles. ... Fans can buy tickets now for the NIT semifinals and finals at http://www.thegarden.com/tickets.html or by calling 866-858-0008. The Huskies Ticket Office will begin selling seats for the March 27 semifinal in New York on Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in UW's Graves Building along Montlake Blvd. in Seattle. Call the Husky Ticket Office at 206-543-2200 for all information on NIT tickets. ... The ticket office found out Wednesday morning that Huskies fans will be sitting in section 106 of the Garden for Tuesday's NIT semifinal.