Jan. 20, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Consider the roof raised.
So what heights will these rising Huskies soar to next?
"It's where we want to be," senior co-captain Justin Holiday said after UW seized control of the early Pac-10 race late Thursday night. "If we keep doing this ... we'll be fine."
Fine? He's being modest. This was more towards fantastic.
Darnell Gant threw the ball away, but raced to the other end to block the shot of Arizona's Kevin Parrom. Thomas chased the loose ball into the corner, looked down at his feet to stay inbounds, leaped and dived head-first with his arms extended into a tunnel that leads from the right side of Arizona's bench to the arena's concourse - all while passing the ball behind his back to teammate Aziz N'Diaye. Gant rewarded Thomas' heroic save with a 3-pointer at the opposite corner of the other end.
Thomas added six rebounds and had just one turnover to continue his wondrous month for UW (14-4, 6-1 Pac-10), which beat the Wildcats for the fourth consecutive time in Seattle. The Huskies, who led by five at the half, are 6-1 in the conference for the second time in three seasons entering Saturday afternoon's home game against Arizona State (9-9, 1-5).
Thursday, Thomas had his most assists with the fewest amount of turnovers in his 88-game career at UW.
The showdown for first place in the league, the rowdy sellout crowd, the jawing between the Dawgs and 'Cats, the nationally televised show - it was everything that the 5-foot-9 junior sought in a college experience when he left Curtis High School outside Tacoma, Wash., and then South Kent prep school in Connecticut three years ago.
"This is what you want to play for," said Thomas, who is playing like he also wants to seize the Wooden Award for national player of the year. He is one of 30 players on the midseason candidate list for that.
Sounds like he has at least one endorsement for that honor. After all, when's the last time anyone saw a 10:1 ratio in assists to turnovers?
"Isaiah Thomas, it's not even close, there's not one player in the country who's more disrespected across the nation than him. Not one. It's not even close," said wowed Arizona coach Sean Miller, himself a former point guard at Pittsburgh. "If he's not one of the top four or five point guards in the country, then I'm going to tell you, I want to invite these guys who vote to come and watch film.
"In my opinion, if you name (Connecticut's) Kemba Walker, you name (Brigham Young) Jimmer Fredette ... he's right there with those guys, how he's playing and what he means to Washington. ... He's so controlling on the offensive, you're just at his mercy."
Still, Miller's Wildcats (15-4, 4-2) took their first lead since 8-6 when Lamont Jones converted a steal into a layup to make it 44-43 with 16 minutes remaining. But then Thomas made the play of the night - and sparked Washington's decisive rally.
Darnell Gant had his shot blocked, but raced to the other end to block the shot of Arizona's Kevin Parrom. Thomas chased the loose ball into the corner, looked down at his feet to stay inbounds, leaped and dived head-first with his arms extended into a tunnel that leads from the right side of Arizona's bench to the arena's concourse - all while passing the ball behind his back to teammate Aziz N'Diaye. Gant rewarded Thomas' heroic save with a 3-pointer at the opposite corner of the other end.
Washington was up 59-50, Thomas, who joked it was a display of his dormant football moves and headfirst baseball slide, was making his favorite "Raise the Roof" gestures with his arms. And the purple crowd was in bedlam.
Romar said the play typified the gritty effort of the entire team.
Thomas was grinning over it like a teacher's pet.
"It's big. Coach Romar is probably going to talk about it the whole time. He loves plays like that," the point guard said.
"A big momentum changer. Big shot by Darnell."
UW maintained edge of around a half dozen points for the next 7 minutes, before pushing it to 73-61 on Thomas' seventh assist: A pass into the corner for a 3-pointer from Holiday with 4:35 left.
Thomas has had seven or more assists in six straight games. The streak began at UCLA on New Year's Eve, when he scored or assisted on Washington's final 17 points of that win. It spans the five games sophomore maestro Gaddy has been out with a season-ending knee injury, leaving Thomas to run the point..
Exquisitely, that is. Miller was still marveling after this game over Thomas' season-high 27 points and career-best 13 assists Sunday at California, when he willed the Huskies to victory. Romar called it the best game by a guard in his nine seasons at Washington.
"He makes the game so much easier for his teammates. ... Right now (he) is at the highest level as a college basketball player. That, I know," Miller said, still raving 20 minutes after the game.
"When he has the ball in his hands, a lot of bad things happen for you. I really believe this: He deserves mention among that elite group of college basketball point guards, because that's what he is. He's a great point guard. He's done it this year. He did it last year. He did it the year before. You look at his career and now who he is as a junior, it's amazing."
Williams scored 10 points in the first 5 minutes of the second half as Arizona made its run. But Washington's defense and four fouls kept Williams scoreless over the final 6 minutes. He finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Washington used man defense with 7-footer N'Diaye, the 6-9 Bryan-Amaning and the 6-8 Gant - and even a zone -- on the 6-8 Williams, who was second in the league averaging 19.7 points per game coming in. That included 31-point nights in two of the last three games, including 31 points and 10 rebounds in Arizona's previous win Sunday against Arizona State.