They missed 16 free throws but still had six more than the opponent. They were down by 10 with 12 minutes left but still won by five. They shot from close range with all the accuracy of a half-crocked Dick Cheney aiming at 'êbirds.'ê Yet the University of Washington men'ês basketball team is just one game from regular season'ês end and will at the very least be co-champions of the Pac-10 conference. With the right combination of circumstances, the Dawgs would win their first outright championship since 1953: five years before coach Lorenzo Romar was born.
The 83-78 final against Arizona Saturday (Feb. 28) leaves the Huskies at 22-7 overall and 13-4 in league. They play what promises to be something of an exhibition game Tuesday (March 3) at home against cross-town non-rival Seattle U. Then it'ês Washington State at home March 7 and on to the inexplicable Pac-10 post-season tournament.
The latter is an event seemingly designed to leave players fatigued and maybe even injured as the NCAA tournament looms. Pac-10 teams play 18 times to settle on a champion then go to Los Angeles and blow most of what could be a rest-up week apparently only to present the possibility that a nine- or 10-seed team could win four games in as many days and seize the league-tournament title.
The UW'ês latest game was hard won in part because of how spent players were after their overtime victory against Arizona State 40 hours earlier. That was Romar'ês appraisal of a sluggish club that twice was down by 10 points during the second half.
'êThis was a real gut check'ê was the after-game understatement offered by freshman guard Isaiah Thomas. He didn'êt say so but it also posed a gut hunch that the officiating favored the home team. Arizona sank all but one free throw but that put them at 13 for 14, well behind the 19 the Huskies'ê had in 35 tries. When the Dawgs were beaten Jan. 29 by the Wildcats in Tucson, the homies went to the line 51 times (40 during the second half), canning 41; UW was just 13 for 20, losing 106-97. Maybe it all evens out.
And maybe it doesn'êt much matter now because the UW men have gone Dawg-gone farther than many arbiters would have dared to predict prior to the season. Depending on NCAA tournament pairings, the Huskies could comprise a dark-horse prospect to win their first two March Madness events and slip into the Sweet 16 brackets, where the Gene Kellys of the 'êbig dance'ê are found. Prior to that, all the Dawgs can do is prepare hard for Wazzu and hope rival teams at the top of the conference slip up and fail to force a tie for the championship.
Coach Romar, proud for good reason of players who found a way to win when it didn'êt look likely, was quick to comment about the fact that his team can do no worse than tie for the Pac-10 title (not accomplished since Detlef Schrempf was a Husky in 1985). It was a 'êspecial weekend that these young men will never forget for the rest of their lives,'ê the mentor said: another understatement.
The memory easily could have been bitter. Usually dependable guards Justin Dentmon and the above-mentioned Thomas had off games as shooters, and forward Quincy Pondexter wasn'êt as effective at either end of the floor as he'êd been during recent weeks.
That meant someone needed to step up. How 'êbout, uh, Jon Brockman, with 11 rebounds and 19 points, the most important of which were clutch free-throws late in the second half. It was the bruising Snohomish-bred senior forward'ês 57th career double-double and may have impressed enough spectators from afar to bring him league player-of-the-year laurels. Romar could/should/would be coach of the year.
The engaging Brockman seems genuine even when he'ês cracking wise with interviewers, so it'ês pretty obvious he means it when he says he'êd rather have the team do well than collect personal plaudits. The Arizona game showed that the Dawgs can get the right result even when they don'êt do particularly well. Certain fans no doubt wonder what the results will look like if the Huskies ever manage to hit a lot of shots from Dick Cheney range.