March 18, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The locker room was happy, but not raucous. Coach Lorenzo Romar was pleased, but nowhere near satisfied.
"I'm not clapping and goin' crazy," Romar told his seventh-seeded Huskies moments after they held onto a 10-point lead with 3:26 left to beat 10th-seeded Georgia 68-65 Friday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament's East region at Time Warner Cable Arena.
"Because we didn't come here to win one game."
Yes, even before the Huskies left their locker room for interviews, Washington (24-10) was already eyeing its date Sunday at 9:15 a.m. with second-seeded North Carolina, the regular-season champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The winner of that gets a spot in the Sweet 16 next weekend in Newark, N.J.
Seniors Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday joined Isaiah Thomas in playfully fretting afterwards that the meticulously prepared Romar will have the team up at 3 a.m. Seattle time Sunday getting ready for the Tar Heels.
Romar just chuckled at that.
Thomas scored 19 points, made all seven of his free throws and had seven assists against just two turnovers. He also deflected a pass away and deny Georgia a good look at a tying 3-pointer at the buzzer.
UW's C.J. Wilcox made the first of one-and-one free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining but missed the second. That allowed Georgia a final chance to tie. But Thomas sprawled to deflect a Bulldogs pass into the front court, leaving Travis Leslie to rush an off-balance shot from well behind the 3-point arc. It was far short and left of the rim as the final buzzer sounded - and all in purple, gold and white exhaled as much as they celebrated.
It was the second consecutive game Thomas finished on his back on the floor. Six days earlier, he was down there getting mobbed by teammates for hitting the winning shot in the Pac-10 tournament title game.
Romar, coaching in his sixth NCAA tournament in nine seasons leading the Huskies, is now 8-5 all time on the sport's biggest stage.
Thomas said four hours before the game inside the team hotel that, as always, it would all start and end with defense for the Huskies Friday night.
Boy, was he right, as UW turned an early seven-point deficit into a tie game at halftime and then into a 10-point lead with 10 minutes to go.
UW's unrelenting pressure wore down the Bulldogs, to the point they were asking the Huskies for mercy on the floor.
At one point, Thompkins - an all-Southeastern Conference force who finished with 26 points and 11 rebounds - turned to Thomas while panting in the paint and saying to the Husky, "Why you guys run so much?"
Later, as the Huskies' press continued incessantly after made baskets, Thompkins, who spent much of the night bringing the ball up the floor as UW had intended, bent over and told Bryan-Amaning, "Man, you need to slow down."
They never did. And that's why it's the Huskies, and not Georgia, facing North Carolina inside the Tar Heel state in a huge, third-round challenge on Sunday.
"We just understand we have to play defense to win games," senior co-captain Justin Holiday said.
Yet Georgia didn't just roll over, getting to within 6 twice in the final minute, then to within 67-65 with 4 seconds left before the frantic final sequence.
The tight game changed when new starter Darnell Gant hit a 3 from the wing and then hopped up and down in place as if on a pogo stick, and on the ensuing defensive possession the Huskies clamped down leaving Georgia with nothing but an air-balled jumper at the shot-clock buzzer. The UW bench, coaches and crowd erupted as Georgia called timeout, down 40-32 with 14:30 left.
The Huskies never trailed after that.
It was 49-42 when Thomas re-entered and Georgia's Dustin Ware hit a 3-pointer with 9:20 left. Thomas then made a basket and smiled to the Huskies' fans behind his team's bench like a cat stealing milk. Then he scored again on a drive down the left side of the lane. That time he stared down the ball as it rested on the baseline, and Washington led 53-44.
When Thomas hit a mid-range jumper to make it 55-47 Huskies with 6:45 to go, he turned, put his index finger over his closed lips and flashed a "Shhh!" to the growling Bulldogs' fans on the other side of the court. They just growled even more.
"I was feelin' it a little bit there," Thomas said later, sheepishly.
The lead stayed from 8-10 through the next 7 minutes, when the Huskies kept the defensive pressure on. They forced six Georgia turnovers in the first dozen minutes after the break. After one of them, when the Bulldogs called timeout, a resting but riled-up Thomas ran from the far end of the bench to midcourt to greet his pressuring defenders.
Yet the Bulldogs kept coming, and UW missed free throws late to help them back into it.
Romar made yet another change to the most versatile starting lineup of his UW tenure. Seeking rugged defense and rebounding against the inside-oriented Bulldogs, the coach started 6-8 junior Darnell Gant for only the second time since Dec. 11.
Gant, a team jokester who led the team in singing Happy Birthday to the wife of assistant coach Raphael Chillious at the team dinner Thursday night, was poised to hound Georgia's leading scorer Trey Thompkins despite giving up two inches to him. Yet he got two fouls called on him in the first 75 seconds.
Washington's players walked into the arena about 90 minutes before tipoff wearing headphones, with their heads bobbing. Some were singing. Georgia entered a few minutes behind them stone faced.
The first half was a sluggish standstill. Washington shot just 35 percent - and Thomas and Bryan-Amaning were a combined 5 for 14 - in the opening half. Yet the Huskies rallied from seven down to tie it at 28 at the break, on a drive, spin and bank shot in the lane by Thomas just before the buzzer.