All-Business Dawgs Clinch Share Of Pac-12 Title
March 1, 2012
By Gregg Bell
LOS ANGELES - Terrence Ross high-fived teammates then strolled off the floor like he just ended a pick-up game.
Darnell Gant smiled to his guys, and to family and friends from his nearby home neighborhood. He could have been in his front yard.
Coach Lorenzo Romar slapped some backs, then thrust a right fist toward the arena roof - but only after prodded by the cheers of the purple pack of fans behind his bench.
Mission Not Yet Fully Accomplished.
"No doubt," Romar said of his focused Huskies. "That's what we've talked about, that this is only half of the whole pie."
Ross scored 18 points with seven rebounds, Gant had 14 points, grabbed nine rebounds and kept the team on task with senior leadership, and Washington clinched at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season championship with a business-like, 80-58 pummeling of USC Thursday night at the mostly deserted Galen Center.
One task down. Another, far bigger one squarely in the Huskies' sights.
"You know, I've never been good at sharing," Gant said.
He won the outright league championship as a redshirt freshman on the 2008-09 Huskies.
Thursday, he was tenacious inside and hit jumpers outside in 21 sterling minutes, his most productive game in six weeks.
His Dawgs (21-8, 14-3 Pac-12), left as strays after a 6-5 start to this season, have won 13 of 15 games and can seize the school's second outright regular-season conference championship in 58 years with a victory Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. at sixth-place UCLA (17-13, 10-7), down the street at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
UW has won the league's regular-season outright in '09, when the league was the Pac-10, and in 1953, '52 and '51 when it was the Pacific Coast Conference. Hec Edmundson won 10 outright titles in the PCC his tenure into the mid-1940s.
"We did what we needed to do," Romar said.
The coach who has won three conference titles and been to six NCAA tournaments in nine previous seasons at Washington had to be cajoled into a smile while speaking outside a happy but far from raucous visiting locker room.
"We've got to get ready for UCLA," Romar said of the Bruins, who whacked Washington State 78-46 Thursday - and whom UW had to rally past late at home to beat Feb. 2.
"Got to take care of business, man."
They did that with a vengeance against overmatched, depleted USC (6-14, 1-16).
The Trojans have barely endured five season-ending injuries that have left them with just six healthy scholarship players. That's after losses to graduation and to the NBA off an NCAA tournament team last season.
Romar said he knew when his Huskies showed up for practice intense and driven on Monday, two days after their rally from 13 down to win at Washington State, that they would come out playing the right way Thursday.
In a testament to how much this team has matured in the last month, Washington smothered a lesser team from the jump. The Huskies disrupted USC's passing lanes during the Trojans' methodical possessions, creating steals and fast-break points to immediately seize control. They led by 10 after just 7½ minutes, then by 17 with 5:33 left before halftime.
UW grabbed 30 of the game's first 40 rebounds and led 40-26 at the break. Jump-shooting USC rarely sent more than one or two players to the offensive glass so it could get back on defense in an attempt to slow the racing Dawgs.
"Our guys had good focus on the defensive end early," Romar said. "That kind of set the tone for everything else."
Ross was coming off a game at WSU in which he had a season-low two points while hampered by foul trouble. In the focused first half, he scored 11 points. Tony Wroten had six points, seven rebounds and four assists in the first 20 minutes.
"We knew the only way Saturday would be a big game was if we came out strong (Thursday)," Ross said.
The lead grew to 18, 44-26, 1 minute into the second half after scores inside by Aziz N'Diaye, who had eight points and seven rebounds in all, and by Gant. Then the Huskies relented for the only time of the night, allowing USC to drive inside for easy scores.
The Trojans rallied to within nine, 49-40, with 13 minutes to go behind the slashing of freshman Byron Wesley. He finished with a game-high 23 points.
Ross admitted the Huskies got comfortable with the huge lead.
"But we have too much at stake to let mental lapses really hurt us," he said.
The 6-foot-6 guard, a nightmare matchup for any defender, began showing his full portfolio of NBA-quality moves to the 25 pro scouts in attendance. That alone repelled USC's only charge. Ross smoothly glided off back screens into the lane for scores. He worked inside-out to hit mid-range jumpers. And he stepped back to hit from deep.
The Trojans meekly surrendered.
Ross says he still has more left to show UCLA - and beyond Saturday, too.
"No, I don't know that's my full arsenal," he said, coyly. "I just did what I needed to do to help the team win."
It ended with Brandon Sherrer on the floor - the senior walk-on and former Dawg Pack member is now 31-0 when he gets in a game - plus seldom-used freshman Martin Breunig banging in a 3-pointer off the glass with the shot clock expiring and soaring for an alley-oop dunk on a pretty pass from Wroten.
Toppings for a regular-season "pie," as Romar called it, that won't be fully baked until one more victory.
Romar, a head man for 17 years at Pepperdine, Saint Louis and UW, still calls winning the outright league title on March 7, 2009, his top coaching moment. That's better even than the six NCAA tournaments and three appearances in the Sweet 16 in his 10 seasons leading UW.
One more win Saturday in Gant's hometown and the senior forward becomes the first Husky to win four conference championships. And UW will have the top seed over California in next week's Pac-12 tournament at Staples Center here in L.A.
"I mean, it's a good feeling. Sharing, for a consolation, is cool," Ross said. "But to have your name down for winning it all, that's a big difference.
"We know what's in front of us."
As for what this means to the NCAA tournament: Only once since the league expanded to an 18-game conference schedule in 1979 has a conference regular-season champion not reached the NCAA tournament. UCLA won the league in 1982, but was on probation and missed the Big Dance.
Asked if he thought the Huskies were an NCAA tournament team, impressed USC coach Kevin O'Neill blurted, "Absolutely.
"And when they get there they are going to win some games, too."