March 4, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - To hear his pals tell it, Justin Holiday is going to cry.
Oh, the Huskies' co-captain says he won't weep when he is introduced on Senior Night immediately prior to Saturday night's 7:30 p.m. tipoff of the regular-season finale against USC at Alaska Airlines Arena (Fox Sports Network television, Washington IMG College radio, and GoHuskies.com for the live game chat).
But teammate Isaiah Thomas knows better.
"Holiday? He's cryin'," Thomas said Friday with a playful scoff.
Thomas, a junior who has been around long enough to know, said senior big man Matthew Bryan-Amaning is another Kleenex candidate.
No one is counting on rugged senior point guard Venoy Overton breaking down, though.
And no one expects as many tears from anyone as Quincy Pondexter produced on his Senior Night last season.
"He was a little punk last year, crying like he did," Thomas joked of the Huskies star now playing for the NBA's New Orleans Hornets. "Because he told people he wasn't going to cry, either."
Coach Lorenzo Romar is preparing his usual senior-night routine: Think about movies he watched as a kid, the guy selling popcorn, the rain - anything "so I don't tear up" -- as the stewards of his program walk through the tunnel from the locker room to the purple-trimmed court at Hec Edmundson Pavilion for the last time.
"I talked to the team (Thursday) night. I just mentioned, `Saturday is going to be your last time' - and I could hardly finish the sentence," Romar said. "Man, you spent all these years with those guys, gone through all these things behind closed doors, good, bad, and you watched them grow.
"I come to practice every day and I see each one of our guys, I'm fired up just to see his face - you're with me, we're family."
They arrived in 2007 as freshmen not highly ranked in terms of obligatory recruiting "stars," attracted from as far away as Los Angeles (Holiday) and London (Bryan-Amaning), and as close as Seattle's Franklin High (Overton) by Washington's appearances in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2005 and '06. But they immediately endured a rare losing season at UW.
As sophomores they were on top, part of an exhilarating run to the Huskies' first outright regular-season conference title in a half century.
Last season they moved into more prominent roles, yet the Huskies struggled early. Then UW stormed through weeks of must-win games to the Pac-10 tournament championship and another trip to the Sweet 16.
Now, they are on the brink of becoming only the third four-year class in UW history to appear in three consecutive NCAA tournaments.
Overton and Bryan-Amaning will each end their careers with over 130 games played, just the fourth and fifth Huskies to play in that many games. Holiday, with 117 career games, would likely have joined them past 130 if he hadn't come down with mononucleosis during his freshman season and a staph infection in his knee as a sophomore.
MBA will leave as the No. 2 shot blocker in UW history. Overton will likely finish second or first in steals.
The Huskies are 88-45 over their four-year careers, which is the second-best four-year span of any senior class (2004-07).
"When you look at the end result, I think they stack up there very high (with other hoops groups at UW)," Romar said. "People always talk about the stars in front of a guy's name. Weren't a whole lot of stars in front of these guys' names when they came in. But several of them, they have a chance to play beyond college. And they helped us win games.
"That's why I always say the stars in front of their names doesn't always tell the whole story."
Bryan-Amaning's scoring has almost doubled this season to 16.2 points per game. He averaged 8.8 as a junior while taking a secondary role inside to Pondexter. Ten of MBA's 13 career double-doubles have come this season, as have nine of his 12 career 20-point games.
"Matthew has developed into a player who has more substance than when he came in, a less-is-more-kind of approach with him now," Romar said. "He's become - I don't think there's any question - an all-conference guy, one of the top rebounders in this entire league. That wasn't his forte necessarily when he came in."
The 6-9 Bryan-Amaning started just four games in his first two seasons while Jon Brockman starred. Now, the British kid who grew up inside a world of soccer is the 36th player in UW history with 1,000 career points and second with 100 steals and 100 blocks.
"It's been a good experience, (about) what I expected," Bryan-Amaning said. "You come here and you think you can be `The Guy,' but it's not like that. ... It's about continuing to work and develop to play at this level."
Holiday has developed into a 12-points-per-game scorer, third on the team behind Thomas and Bryan-Amaning. And Holiday is still providing the stops that had him on last season's Pac-10 all-defensive team. He is so steady - on the floor and in person -- this feels like last year to him. Or the year before that.
"Sometimes, I don't even think about me being a senior as far as playing goes. But there are some situations where I go, `Yeah, I am a senior' -- like being on the road, in tough situations, maybe the energy is down," the 6-6 forward said. "I'm a captain. I've been in this situation before. I'm the older guy now."
Romar can't stop raving about all the tangible and intangible assets Holiday brings to the Huskies.
"Justin Holiday has winner written all over him," the coach said.
Overton's final season has been full of pain, perseverance - and now production.
He pulled a hamstring in September. It took him two months to get through that. Then he bruised his tailbone. Then he hyperextended his knee. He played through that, plus a bruised shoulder, into February.
It all slowed his fiendish defense, which for years has had opponents dribbling balls off their shoes at the mere sight of him.
Then he got healthy - at the same time Romar got mad.
The coach, angered by lackadaisical defense during February's three-game losing streak, demanded more man-to-man, pressure defense all over the floor.
Presto! Overton's season started anew.
"Coach finally got mad and said, `We are going to pressure up,'" Overton said, smiling. "I was waiting for that day."
He is third in Washington history with 175 steals. Overton was also fourth on UW's career assists list, with 383 in 132 games.
Feb. 12 against Stanford, he had a season-high 12 points and was on the court with Thomas for the decisive minutes - just as he was last season, when Washington wouldn't have made the NCAA tournament without him. He had 10 points in Thursday's 70-63 win over UCLA, and displayed the tenacious, in-your-face defense that the Pac-10 has learned to fear the last four years.
He's now the freshest Husky, ready for the stretch run.
"Venoy will be a guy people will always remember when they talk about these teams," Romar said. "He's a guy who has changed games, got something going, whatever it was he got something going when he's come into a game. He's provided a lot of fun and excitement for people to watch - and a lot of fun and excitement for me."
All three seniors will start Saturday. And all are ready for more fun and excitement in the Pac-10 and NCAA tournaments over the next two weeks.
"We'll see how this year ends, but I'd like to see these seniors finish (strong)," Romar said. "They could finish with having pretty special careers."