Things just weren’t working for Washington for most of its NCAA Tournament second-round game against Purdue Saturday. The Boilermakers held a sizable rebounding edge. The Huskies went to the line just six times in the first half. Purdue was pumping in more points from the perimeter than UW. Washington usually controls those kinds of numbers.
The Huskies fell behind by 14 points with 14 minutes left and it didn’t look so good. Those numbers weren’t changing. Then, once again, Venoy Overton put his stamp on the valiant comeback. He did it simply by taking a foul and a flying elbow.
Overton was whistled for reaching in foul against Purdue’s E’Twaun Moore. But Moore finished up the play with a elbow that knocked Overton to the ground. The referees did nothing about it, but that angered the fans, most of whom were wearing purple. A purple rage. That was just the opportunity the fans and the Huskies needed to get charged up. Those numbers began turning the other way.
The Huskies, behind outstanding second-half efforts by Isaiah Thomas and Jon Brockman, reduced the margin to just two points five times but Purdue kept pushing it back. It was 73-71 with 1.36 left as Brockman made his seventh straight shot without a miss.
After Purdue failed on its possession, for the first time in the half the Huskies had the chance to tie or take the lead. But Purdue’s 6-foot-10 center JaJuan Johnson blocked two attempts, one inside and one outside, and that was the difference. Thomas had a chance to bring the Huskies back with 15 seconds left but missed an easy one underneath. Purdue held on.
For me, it was surprising because the Huskies didn’t look like they usually do. Credit Purdue for taking away the Huskies strengths early. And credit the Boilermakers for hitting the big shots and the big blocks when they needed. I didn’t think they would do that as consistently as they did. They were steady throughout in what was clearly a road game for them.
Then as the buzzer sounded on the 76-74 loss, it immediately occurred to me that this was the end of a stellar career for Brockman. He finished with a final – and 59th – double-double, 20 points, 17 rebounds. He had accomplished what he hoped he would when he chose Washington over Duke four years ago. He wanted to guide the Huskies back to prominence. He did. They are. And the torch will be passed next season to Thomas, another local product.
Brockman leaves knowing that the program can sustain itself. This is going to be a good team next season with Thomas and Overton on the perimeter and Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Quincy Pondexter in the middle. They’ll continue to play Husky basketball, which has been characterized by Brockman for the past four years.
As for Brockman, his best days are now behind him. At 6-foot-6, he’s a tweener for the NBA. I don’t see him having much of a career, although he could excel and make good money in the European and South American circuits.
It would have been fun to see what would have happened had the Huskies gone on to play UConn. But let me tell you, after getting a close look at those behemoths this afternoon, I don’t see many teams that can handle that size and speed. UConn has coasted through the tournament thus far, beating Chattanooga, 103-47, then routed Texas A&M Saturday, 92-66. They’ve outscored their NCAA opponents by a combined 82 points.
The Connecticut Huskies may be the biggest team in the tournament, if not in the nation. They have three 7-footers, including 7-foot-3, 263 pound Hasheem Thabeet. But it’s not just size, it’s bulk. They would have outweighed UW at every position.
But UW, picked fifth in the Pac-10 preseason poll, accomplished something no other team in Seattle has done in more than a year. The Huskies lifted our spirits again and showed us the joy of high level competition. It was fun to watch.
It comes down to believing in Lorenzo Romar if you are a University of Washington basketball fan. Over the years, people have jumped on and off that Lo-Ro train based on the team’s results. Certainly, by the end of last season’s 16-17 campaign a few fans were left at the depot.
But I can say that I never have stopped believing in Lorenzo. I’ve come so close a couple times but I’ve always felt that he knows what he’s doing, he has a plan. He’s solid recruiter, a good coach, a good system and a guy with a vision. I’m still in his corner as the Huskies take on Mississippi State Thursday in the first round of the NCAAs.
Five years ago, I remember people jumping off in bunches in 2003-04 during Romar’s second season at UW. I had been covering the Huskies for The Seattle Times since 1990, through the Lynn Nance and Bob Bender eras. Bender had his breakthrough in the late 1990s but couldn’t sustain the success.
Romar had put together a pretty talented team that season, through players inherited and recruited. Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Will Conroy, and Bobby Jones were just emerging. There were raised expectations even though the Huskies were coming off four straight losing seasons.
However, the Huskies started with just a 5-3 non-conference record and went 0-5 to open the Pac-10 season. Fans questioned everything Romar did. There was a feeling that maybe he wasn’t the guy who could bring the program back to prominence. There was a lot of moaning. The arena was half full. Boosters were grousing. But for whatever reason I still felt that the season was salvageable. From my perspective, Romar had a quiet confidence, as if he knew things were about to change.
Then came the night of Jan. 17, 2004 at Oregon State. You might remember that one. It was the most important victory, in my view, in perhaps the last 30 years. That was the game when Nate Robinson let the ball roll almost to mid-court on the inbounds pass then hit a clutch three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The Huskies won 103-99 then went on to win five in a row, eight of the next nine and 14 of the next 16. They had turned the corner barely in time for the NCAA selection committee. They finished with a 19-12 record and their first NCAA berth since 1999. They followed that with two more NCAA berths and Sweet 16 appearances.
Since then, they lost a lot of talent – including the greatest player ever to put on a Husky uniform, Brandon Roy – so it wasn’t surprising that the Huskies stumbled so badly last season.
I covered a few games for The Associated Press early this season and the doubters were in abundance, as if Romar had accomplished nothing. One of the ushers told me that the team looked disorganized with too many underachievers. Another prominent booster, and former player, said Lo-Ro had lost his mojo with the departure of assistant coach Ken Bone for Portland State after the 2005 season.
I had heard all that before. I wasn’t buying it. For me, I believed that some of the underachievers such as Quincy Pondexter, Venoy Overton and Justin Dentmon, would step up and players such as freshman Isaiah Thomas and sophomore Matthews Bryan-Amaning would have significant impacts.
The team reached its low point in late November with tough losses to Kansas and Florida, but they’ve pulled together for the school’s first solo Pac-10 championship since 1953.
This team reminds me of the 2005 team because of its scoring balance and commitment to defense. The key to that 2005 was Roy, a great finisher and clutch player. Thomas, though not nearly the same kind of player, is a terrific finisher and fearless inside. Bryan-Matthews improved as much this season as anyone I’ve ever seen. Jon Brockman is tenacious on the boards, as perhaps the best rebounder in the country.
So what I’m trying to say is I think there is great potential for the Huskies in this tournament. I think they can get past Mississippi State tomorrow because of their balance. And I believe they’ll win their second game, likely against Purdue, especially with all those purple fans in Portland.
It might come down once again to Washington against Connecticut. And I know the Huskies want this one. UConn has beaten UW twice in the Sweet 16 and the UW players are targeting UConn. You just hope they’re not overlooking these next two games.