SAN JOSE, CALIF. – They heard the doubters. They read the blogs. They knew their coach was coming under fire.
But even in the darkest days of this season, the Washington Huskies believed they could be special. Not just good, but very good. This good. As good as they were Saturday, when they advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament by running third-seeded, 30-win New Mexico out of HP Pavilion, 82-64.
And run is literally what the Huskies did.
And the Lobos couldn’t keep up beyond the middle of the first half.
“We did a great job of forcing the tempo on them,” senior forward Quincy Pondexter said. “We knew they were a transition team going into this game, and we wanted to show that we have another level of fastbreak and defensive intensity. That’s what really wore them down.”
After an even first few minutes, the Huskies surged ahead with a 12-2 run midway through the first half. They built a 44-32 halftime lead, and the Lobos never threatened after that.
New Mexico guard Dairese Gary contributed a game-high 25 points, but Mountain West Conference player of the year Darington Hobson was limited to 11 points.
In the final minutes, UW coach Lorenzo Romar was able to clear his bench – all of it, including walk-on Brendan Sherrer.
It was a new experience for New Mexico, which ended its season with 30 wins and five losses. Those previous losses had come by nine, 10, 12 and three points. But after losing by 18 points on Saturday – after trailing by 23 – the Lobos were convinced.
“That’s the best team we’ve played,” coach Steve Alford said. “Lorenzo’s got them playing at a high level at the right time of year.”
And yet, it was just two months ago today that the Huskies lost at the buzzer to UCLA, and then two days later were run out of the gym at Southern California, falling to 3-5 in the Pacific-10 Conference race.
And it was just about that time that criticism of the Huskies and their coach went multimedia: radio talk, blogs, message boards, you name it.
But even if others doubted, the Huskies say they never did. They didn’t just believe they could be better than they were showing in January. They believed they could be as good as they’re playing now.
“Always. Always,” Romar said. “We talked to our team about this early: We can go one of two ways: We can be mediocre, or we can be a special team. But again, it took a while for us to come to the realization that if we bought in and no one cared who got the credit, we could get some things accomplished.”
That teamwork mentality was on display Saturday, as 10 Huskies scored, and four scored in double figures: Pondexter had 18; Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning had 15 points each, and Elston Turner scored 10 points.
“(Romar) does everything in his power to give us the ability to win games,” Pondexter said. “There was a time when we weren’t performing. He was doing everything in his power coaching-wise, but we weren’t playing well. And you know what? For those people who criticized him during the season, now he can have the last laugh.”
Except, the season isn’t over.
This week the Huskies will move on to the East Regional in Syracuse, N.Y., where on Thursday they will meet the winner of today’s game between No. 2 West Virginia and No. 10 Missouri.
No UW team in more than half a century has won in the round of 16. But given how far this team has come, these Huskies aren’t putting limits on themselves now.
“The way we’re playing, we feel like we can beat anybody,” Thomas said. “It’s the NCAA tournament, where anything can happen. … I feel like the sky’s the limit when we do things right, and we’re doing things right. We’re playing Husky basketball, and anything can happen. We beat a great team.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808