March 11, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LOS ANGELES - How's this for timely glove work?
One of Isaiah Thomas' many NBA mentors, Gary Payton, stood in front of the victorious Huskies in their locker room and proceeded to crack them up with his trademark, uh, colorful language.
"Wilcox and Ross, y'all are pretty damn good. All y'all are pretty damn good," the former Seattle SuperSonics superstar told them after watching resurgent, third-seeded Washington dismantle seventh-seeded Oregon 69-51 Friday night at Staples Center to reach the Pac-10 tournament championship game again.
The fiery, fun Payton threw in a couple other modifiers, leaving the Huskies roaring.
How often does "The Glove" talk to Thomas?
"He calls me when he's mad," Thomas said.
He won't be calling today.
C.J. Wilcox had 14 points, fellow freshman Terrence Ross scored 13 in his second career start and Thomas had 10 points while tying a Pac-10 tournament record with 12 assists. They let the third-seeded Huskies get a breather before Saturday afternoon's conference title game against top-seeded Arizona.
"Y'all beat that (team) once. They beat your (team) once," Payton told the Huskies accurately of the regular-season series - except in the locker room he kept in the omitted, colorful way to describe a posterior.
"This is it."
At halftime, Payton came down from his seat a few rows behind the Huskies bench and told the star point guard and protégé, "You are going too fast. You've got to pace yourself more."
Thomas took that advice and became the calm maestro that directed Washington to steadily doubling its nine-point halftime lead. Thomas had seven assists in the second half. He has 31 points and 23 assists in UW's first two games of the tournament - while playing 78½ of a possible 80 minutes.
"He was going as if he hadn't played any minutes," coach Lorenzo Romar said, marveling yet again at his midseason candidate for national player of the year.
A refreshingly active zone defense took control of the game early, when the offense was sputtering, and Washington (22-10) cruised from there to advance to Saturday's 3 p.m. Pacific time championship game against the Wildcats, who beat USC in Friday night's earlier game.
The Huskies are trying to win the conference tournament and gain the Pac-10's automatic entry into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.
The Dawgs feel a sense of redemption over reaching these finals, after their struggles throughout February, two losses in their final three home games ending last week and the negativity of off-court issues with point guard Venoy Overton.
"It feels good, especially with everybody talking all that trash about us. All that is is everybody pulling together," said senior Justin Holiday, whom the coaches congratulated for holding Oregon's E.J. Singler to 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting.
Singler had scored a career-best 46 points in his previous two games.
"I made sure I was there when he caught the ball," Holiday said. "And I stayed on his pump fakes and hesitations."
Yet Thomas emphasized the Huskies aren't just happy to have rallied this far.
"We didn't just come here to get into the NCAA tournament. We came here to defend our title," he said.
This was the opposite of Thursday night's wild, frenetic rally past Washington State, in which Thomas took over with 21 points and 11 assists.
This time, Thomas orchestrated the offense and got his shooters open with dribble drives into the lane to finish one shy of his career best in assists, set Jan. 16 at California. He is only the third Husky to have consecutive games with 10 or more assists, and he's done that twice this season.
Once again, as Thomas goes, so go the Huskies.
"Really, they all hurt us."
The Huskies eased their way through the middle of the second half with a 10-point lead, drawing the ire of Romar for coasting. But then Thomas began driving aggressively inside again - such as when he fed Wilcox for a corner 3-pointer while he was getting fouled. The four-point play gave Washington a 60-47 lead with 3:58 left.
Thomas yelled "That's what I'm talking about!" as Oregon, looking spent in their third game in three nights, called timeout.
By the time Ross added a soaring, wind-milling, one-handed slam for the exclamation point, the bench emptied. Walk-on Brendan Sherrer entered. And the large, loud purple crowd was roaring again.
Washington seemed to surprise Oregon (16-17) by spending most of the first 20 minutes in an active, 2-3 zone defense that aggressively jumped out on perimeter shooters. That forced the Ducks into 35% shooting and seven turnovers in the first half - one fewer than they had in their entire win last month over UW in Eugene.
"I thought the zone helped us," said Romar, who went to it most often when 7-footer N'Diaye was in the game. "I thought maybe that slowed them down a little bit, didn't allow them to get going."
The Huskies would have led by more than 30-21 at the break had they shot better - more specifically, had they worked the ball inside more against Oregon's alternating man-to-man and zone defenses. The inside game got stalled early when Bryan-Amaning, who finished with six points and seven rebounds, went to the bench with two quick fouls for the second consecutive night.
Scott Suggs was the Huskies' only warm jump shooter in the opening half, going 3 for 3. Thomas was 1 for 5. Wilcox was 1 for 4. And Ross, the freshman who won an Oregon state title at Portland's Jefferson High, was 2 for 7.
Thomas didn't get much hotter, finishing 2 for 11. But they didn't need his scorer on this easier night.
They did put Payton to use, though.
"I love everything you are doing right now," he told the Huskies.
They roared back their appreciation - and are poised to keep roaring in Dawgs and `Cats III Saturday afternoon.
"I know Arizona won the regular season title. But this is our ring," Bryan-Amaning said. "It's something we've worked hard to do, defend our title."