Dec. 29, 2010
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
LOS ANGELES - Three Huskies disqualified on fouls. Two other starters playing with four fouls. Their best sharpshooter out injured. Two seniors guards hurting. A stifling half-court pace set by USC's style of play. And, oh, yeah, a 12-point deficit.
These hardened Huskies endured everything but an L.A. earthquake while pulling out a gritty victory Wednesday night to begin the Pac-10 season. It's bound to send shock waves through the conference that these usually racing the favorites to win the league can successfully claw and scrap on the road when necessary, too.
"That's a championship team that wins games like this," senior Venoy Overton said, after he played through a nagging knee injury to score eight of his 11 points in overtime and seal a 73-67 win over the Trojans.
The victory at times seemed unfathomable. But its impact may last into March.
"Power teams in conferences around the country, teams like Duke, they win close games on the road like this, when you have to grind it out," Overton said. "Grind" only describes the half of it.
Freshman Terrence Ross scored a career-high 18 points before fouling out midway through overtime, Matthew Bryan-Amaning added 18 points and eight rebounds. And the Huskies (9-3) somehow got through being tagged with 27 fouls, USC's concentrated defense on leading scorer Isaiah Thomas and the loss of C.J. Wilcox. Washington's shooting whiz came down with a staph infection in his right hip.
The redshirt freshman limped to the bus afterward and said he would try to play Friday afternoon at UCLA, but he doesn't expect to be able to.
Run-and-gun Washington entered the week second in nation scoring an average of 90.6 points per game. But the Huskies had zero fastbreak points as the Trojans dropped three players back quickly on defense after each of USC's shots on offense.
"It's big, man," Thomas said of the opening statement in conference play done on USC's terms, not Washington's.
The fouls forced the Huskies to abandon their usual, frenetic, man-to-man defense and play almost exclusively zone from the middle of the first half on. It was the first time this season they'd played zone. And the back of that zone was trying to defend while in foul trouble.
No wonder the hundreds of roaring Huskies fans, most of whom made the two-hour drive north from San Diego the night before Washington plays football in the Holiday Bowl, reveled in their hoops team passing this test of wills and grit.
The purple pack of people from rafters to floor in this otherwise lifeless, still-new palace taunted the Trojans with chants of "Just like football!" immediately after the first overtime win in a conference opener in UW history.
The hoops team was even in their all-black uniforms, just as the football team will be Thursday night against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
"This was such a big game because this (USC) team represents everything that was difficult for us," Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I was very anxious to see how we would play in this game.
"I feel if we can play this type of game, we're going to be all right."
This resourceful thriller won't be forgotten anytime soon.
The 6-foot-6 Ross repeatedly took advantage of smaller defenders to show why Romar has been saying he's probably the most talented player on the team. Ross gave Washington its biggest lead, 51-46, with 4:49 left when he buried a deep, corner 3-pointer with a Trojan's hand in his face.
"I just let the game come to me. Tonight, it came early," Ross said when asked if he was getting anxious for what Overton termed the freshman's "breakout game." "I definitely imagined myself playing SC and going off. I knew if I had this opportunity I would score."
Ross was so jazzed over his first big game as a Husky, he was still in full uniform as he got into the team bus that took him back to the team's hotel. Thomas was impressed.
"You saw him tonight - a freshman coming into his first Pac-10 game," said Thomas, who often passed out of traffic centered on him to find Ross open in the halfcourt. "He wasn't scared."
But USC (8-6), which has beaten ranked Texas and Tennessee and lost narrowly at Kansas, rallied late behind the 28 points of Nikola Vucevic, who gave Bryan-Amaning fits inside by venturing out and hitting 6 of 14 shots, then repeatedly driving to create 14 free-throw chances.
That was more than the Huskies has a team until the Trojans started fouling to extend the game in overtime.
Justin Holiday, who finished with 12 points despite playing much of the game with four fouls, made a Herculean 3-pointer early in overtime. He was falling away into the Huskies' bench to avoid falling on his defender's foot and reinjuring his own right foot, which he hurt last week against Nevada.
Holiday scored the first five points of OT. Overton then ensured the win with clutch free throws in a game in which officials became the game's focal point, calling 49 fouls in 45 minutes.
For one night, anyway, Washington could forget its close losses at the Maui Invitational last month against Kentucky and Michigan State, and at Texas A&M this month.
"It just shows you we are able to win on the road, which has been our problem," Holiday said, with an ice bag on the senior's right foot. "It shows we're maturing."
Washington won for the eighth consecutive time over a Pac-10 team, dating from last regular season and the Pac-10 tournament championship UW won in this city in March. It was perhaps the most illogical feat in Husky athletics this year that Washington led 28-26 at halftime, after being down 16-4 right away and then absorbing all the fouls and poor offensive execution. Ross gave UW its first lead with 1:03 left in the period when he swished his third 3-pointer in four attempts.
How bad was the first half was for the Huskies? Junior walk-on Brendan Sherrer, not long ago a member of the Huskies' Dawg Pack student section at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, got to the scorer's table in that final 90 seconds. He was ready to check in after Bryan-Amaning picked up his second foul. Seven-footer Aziz N'Diaye was already on the bench with three fouls, on his way to fouling out. Had play stopped, Sherrer - AKA "The Human Victory Cigar" -- would have gone in for the first time in his career other than at the end of a win.
But it never did, and the half ended with Sherrer never getting further than the midcourt sideline.
"Oh, yeah, I was nervous," Sherrer said, laughing on his way to Washington's team bus. "I mean, I haven't been into a game in the first half before."