Ten minutes into the Thursday (March 10) three-match against Washington State, the Husky men’s basketball team looked typically aimless and game-less, down 13 at the 9:33 point and perilously close to being eliminated not just from the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles but from NCAA March Madness bracket consideration.
Thirty minutes in, the Dawgs’ apparent undoing was personified by Wazzu’s Klay Thompson, who would put up 43, three fewer than the Cougars would’ve needed to beat a Husky club that somehow managed an 89-87 win to advance to the tournament semifinals against Oregon today (March 11).
To appreciate the victory requires ignoring recollection of what the Huskies were up to at the 10-, 20-, and 30-minute marks. The key number proved to be 40 minutes, which is what Isaiah Thomas played.
He had to. Thomas was the only capable point guard in the absence of Venoy Overton, benched because of gross-misdemeanor charges relating to allegations from a reported Jan. 8 incident. (Overton was at courtside at the Staples Center arena but received virtually no attention from the TV-broadcast crew.)
UW mentor Lorenzo Romar may not have said so during the aftermath of a game that drained every last second. But spectators could have felt the Dawgs benefited from having a second de facto head coach on the floor for the 40 minutes.
Not only did Thomas put up numbers (21 points, 11 assists) typical of his stellar career. The junior also seemed to channel the playing-coach days of Lenny Wilkens, prodding, prompting and pleading with teammates to stay engaged.
It was floor leadership worthy of a quality NBA point guard. Thomas’s indefatigable efforts finally paid off when the Dawgs took their first lead early during the second half. They kept it close and never trailed during the final nine minutes. While allowing Thompson (back from last weekend’s benching for marijuana possession) a highlight reel of perimeter swishers, the Huskies divvied up the scoring during their own possessions. With all five Husky starters hitting in double figures, the Cougars, crafty on defense during their home-and-away season wins against the rival, couldn’t quite spread their defenders well enough to blunt UW’s array of weapons.
Thomas et al no doubt will be fittingly exhausted at tip-off time against Oregon Friday at 8:40 p.m. The winner (the Ducks and Dawgs split during the regular season) would limp into a Saturday finale against either Arizona or USC, both of the latter emerging as the league’s elite during the final month of the season.
No matter the outcome of the current tourney, the Dawgs’ 21-10 record going into the semis may well be enough to earn them a Sunday NCAA post-season nod. It wouldn’t be an elite perch in the tournament brackets but at least a bid would benefit Romar’s recruiting position for next year.
By then the Huskies, who lose just three seniors (Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Justin Holiday along with Overton), may benefit from the presence of Terrence Ross. The freshman guard from Portland already is demonstrating his value, hitting six of 11 from the floor Thursday and contributing a blocked shot. C. J. Wilcox, the other frosh starter, had 16 points.
Afterward Romar said at a press gathering that Thomas has “been waiting to do that since he's been here, play 40 minutes.”
Thomas, who deflected praise to his teammates, could be excused for being too tired to add: “play 40 minutes and co-coach at the same time.”