LOS ANGELES – The Washington Huskies earned it all Saturday: the Pacific-10 Conference tournament championship, an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, the tournament MVP award for guard Isaiah Thomas – and one other thing.
“We’re going to be able to sleep tonight,” senior Quincy Pondexter said during the winner’s press conference Saturday. “We’ve been going to sleep watching SportsCenter every day. We’ve been hearing we’ve been on the bubble, off the bubble. There are so many questions that came about. But at the end of the day, we told each other that if we handle business, we don’t need a committee to decide if we’re good enough.”
The third-seeded Huskies punched their own ticket with a 79-75 win over top-seeded California before an announced crowd of 15,851 at Staples Center.
“What a college basketball game,” coach Lorenzo Romar said. “Both teams played at an extremely high level. Both teams were competing. It was obvious something was on the line.”
Surviving a thrilling stretch run earned the Huskies a new banner to hang back home at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. And it earned them an automatic invitation into the next tournament – the one that had been their goal all season.
But it came only after surviving a roller-coaster ride of a game against the Pac-10 regular-season champions.
Washington worked its way to a nine-point lead midway through the second half, then watched it disappear in a 14-0 run by Cal, and then put together one last surge to clinch it.
Matthew Bryan-Amaning started UW’s final answer with a layup. Venoy Overton pulled the Huskies even with a 3-pointer. Elston Turner added another 3. Justin Holiday drained a jumper. So did Pondexter. And Tyreese Breshers and Overton hit four final free throws when every point mattered.
“Venoy could literally be 0-for-10 going into a game,” Romar said, “but when the game is on the line, he rarely misses.”
Overton clinched it in the final two seconds, hitting the free throws that doubled a vulnerable two-point lead into an insurmountable four.
“Coach believes in me,” said Overton, who is best known as a member of the league’s all-defense team. “I haven’t always been a non-shooter. I used to shoot the ball pretty well at Franklin (High School in Seattle).”
When the buzzer sounded, Overton and his teammates bolted to the nearest CBS television camera, pointing to the word “Huskies” across their black jerseys. Then Overton, Thomas and Holiday danced under the basket. Everyone slipped on purple caps and white T-shirts proclaiming their championship.
One by one, players climbed a ladder and snipped pieces from the net, with the final strand left for Romar.
Before the championship trophy was handed out, the six-man all-tournament team was named. It included UCLA’s Michael Roll and five players who had battled in the final game.
Representing UW was Pondexter, who had 18 points; and Thomas, who scored 16 and became the school’s first conference tournament MVP.
“It’s a blessing from God,” said Tacoma native Thomas. “Keep faith and anything can happen.”
Representing Cal were Theo Robertson, Jamal Boykin and Jerome Randle, who scored 25, 20 and 12 respectively in the final.
“In some ways it’s surprising that we shot the ball as poorly as we did from two of the people who were primary guys for us (Patrick Christopher and player-of-the-year Randle), and we had a chance to win at the end,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “We made mistakes that we don’t normally make.”
The loss might have shifted the uneasy night’s sleep to the Bears (23-10), although Montgomery said his team’s accomplishments merit an at-large bid to the NCAA.
“Missing the tournament would set a precedent that I think is unheard of,” he said. “… It’s not even in a way worth commenting on. I think it just completely negates the purpose of a conference to play 18 games and win it (and then not be invited). I think that’s just talk.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies (24-9) said they would celebrate this tournament title only until this afternoon. Once they learn their first NCAA tournament opponent and first-round site, they’ll turn their attentions to extending this season as long as possible.
“It’s something that we’ve worked hard for as a team,” Pondexter said. “Being a senior, you don’t want to let this thing go.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808