Jan. 22, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Matthew Bryan-Amaning saw Isaiah Thomas waiting for him as he sprinted for the rim. Then he soared, high above any Sun Devil, seemingly high enough to touch the steel beams that support the ceiling of Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Bryan-Amaning just kept going up. And up. And up.
Just like his Huskies.
"All ups to Matt," Thomas said, still smiling over the most uplifting of his eight assists, on an electrifying alley-ooop dunk in the second half when the pass looked way above and even behind the 6-foot-9 forward. "He doesn't have those long arms for nothin'."
Bryan-Amaning used them to rule the paint, the Sun Devils and everything else inside Alaska Airlines Arena Saturday afternoon. His career-high 30 points on top of nine rebounds led 20th-ranked Washington to an 88-75 race past Arizona State - and the first-place Dawgs to their best start in the Pac-10 in 24 years.
"You all forget I have a 7-4 wing span. If I can find it, I'm going to get it," the senior big man said of the game's best play. His day was so grand, at one point in the second half Bryan-Amaning turned to teammate Scott Suggs and exclaimed, "Oh, my God! Everything's falling!"
"MBA" remains the prime beneficiary of Thomas' wondrous move to point guard this month following the season-ending knee injury to Abdul Gaddy. And Thomas remains mostly unstoppable. He had 19 points, eight assists and six rebounds - plus stifling, game-changing defense in the second half on ASU's Ty Abbott - for the Dawgs (15-4).
The preseason favorites to win the Pac-10 get a couple days off next week, then play at Washington State on Jan. 30 while 7-1 in the conference for the first time since 1987.
How long ago was that? None of these Huskies players were born then.
Bryan-Amaning was out of the starting lineup during a four-game stretch last month because of inconsistency, but has 24 points, eight, 22, 18 and now 30 points in the last five games Thomas has started at the point. Many of those points have come off short, fancy passes inside from the hard-driving Thomas, and then stronger finishing moves to the rim by the British import.
"He's worked on going to the basket instead of falling away like he used to," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "He's grown up, and it's helped him."
Thomas is helping UW is every way imaginable.
Abbott had 20 points for Arizona State (9-10, 1-6) but made just two buckets after Romar took the advice of his assistants at halftime then walked up to Thomas in the locker room and told the 5-foot-9 dynamo: "You got him. You shut him down."
Abbott had made six of 12 shots in 19 minutes during the first half, while guarded by almost every perimeter Husky but Thomas. And the Sun Devils - using a 3-2 zone to slow UW -- led by six early.
But Abbott missed four of the six shots he took in 18 minutes of the second half while facing Thomas, who is five inches shorter. Washington outscored ASU 48-36 after the break.
"I don't think we win the game tonight if he doesn't guard Abbott," Romar said.
Asked what he did against Abbott, Thomas simply said: "Denied him the ball. With shooters, I feel that's the easiest (guys) to guard, because I will run with you all night."
Arizona State lost by 17 Thursday at Washington State and had the lowest scoring offense in the Pac-10 at 62.9 points per game entering Saturday's meeting with the third-highest scoring team in the nation. Yet the Sun Devils stayed with the Huskies deep into the second half behind the long-range shooting of Abbott, Trent Lockett and Rihards Kuksiks. They fought back from eight points down early in the second half to tie it at 63 on a 3-pointer by Kuksiks with 6 minutes left.
Free throws and another score inside by Bryan-Amaning maintained that five-point edge with 2 minutes left.
After a second consecutive turnover by ASU's Lockett - forced by tenacious help defense by Bryan-Amaning and Wilcox in the lane -- the Huskies spread the floor to use up time. Then Thomas blew past everyone with his signature, left-hand dribble drive down the left edge of the lane for a lay-in that put Washington up 78-71.
After a Sun Devil basket and steal, Overton raced back as the Huskies' lone defender, turned and blocked a layup by Jamelle McMillan. That finally put Washington in control with just over a minute remaining.
"Never fun to play Arizona State," Romar said, likening the predominant slog to a football grudge match. "They always make it real difficult. Like my good buddy (and former fellow UCLA assistant) Steve Lavin says, 'Sometimes, you just have to move the chains.'"
Thomas has 31 assists in the last three games. He is the only player in the nation this season with double-digit assists in consecutive games, a streak that barely ended Saturday.
He playfully chided Holiday as the final buzzer sounded for kindly dribbling out the clock instead of taking Thomas' long lead pass in for layup that would have given Thomas a ninth assist.
"That's why I'm so mad right now," Thomas joked, with mock disgust.
He is just the second Husky, and first in over 41 years, to have double-digit assists in consecutive games. He had 13 assists at California last weekend and 10 on Thursday night in UW's win over Arizona.
Rafael Stone had 10 and then 12 assists on Dec. 19 and 20, 1969, at a tournament in Tempe, Ariz.