Arizona Coach Sean Miller got all zen with the media Saturday after Washington won the Pac-10 tournament on Isaiah Thomas’ last-second shocker, saying, Their identity outworked out identity.”
Around here, we would call that an Ichiro-ism.
It was Miller’s way of saying that the stat sheet offers an incomplete explanation why the Huskies won. It doesn’t quantify hustle and heart, togetherness and toughness, determination and desire.
For three days, particularly in the championship game, the Huskies played Husky basketball, diving for loose balls, setting hard screens, taking charges, boxing out and digging in.
The Huskies had 16 offensive rebounds, contributing to 17 second-chance points, compared to seven for Arizona. Their two freshmen, Terrence Ross and C.J. Wilcox, had the cold-blooded confidence to hit three-pointers with 17 seconds and 7 seconds left, respectively, to send the game into overtime. Then, of course, the coolest one of all was Thomas’ 18-footer at the buzzer.
All those things take grit, guts and self-assurance. Those are intangibles that before the tournament many purple folks believed had been suspended along with Venoy Overton. The virtues weren’t apparent the week before the tournament when the Huskies lost two of three at home and seemed poised for a run at the NIT. They had misplaced their identity.
But like a light switch, the current ran through them again in L.A. It may have locked in during the first minute of the first game when Ross drilled a three-pointer against Washington State. Wilcox followed with a trey a two minutes later. They were off, as UW Coach Lorenzo Romar said, playing with a purpose for three days…they would not be denied.”
Miller, whose team had three epic battles with the Huskies this season, added, They are just a tough-minded, deep team. They kept fighting. It’s one thing to blame ourselves but you have to make big shots and they made quite a few of them down the stretch. I would not want to play them in the first round of the (NCAA) Tournament at all.”
Georgia gets that opportunity. The No. 10-seeded Bulldogs (21-11) are UW’s first-round opponent in the East Region in Charlotte, N.C.
Winning the conference tournament definitely enhanced Washington’s seed, a No. 7, but did nothing for its destination. The Huskies (23-10) will travel across the country to play the second game Friday at about 6:45 p.m.
Cross-state power Gonzaga was given an 11th seed, but they play in Denver in the Southeast Regional against St. John’s. At least they’re both better than Washington State, a bubble team that burst. The Cougars didn’t make it.
If the Huskies beat Georgia. the fifth team from the Southeastern Conference, it gets brutal. They likely will face No. 2 seed North Carolina, a school little more than 100 miles from its Chapel Hill campus.
It could be fun playing in that atmosphere with everyone against you,” senior guard Justin Holiday said. That’s how it’s been most of the year. I think we’ll be comfortable in that environment.”
That just shows that the Huskies are full of confidence. It’s back. They’re not afraid of anyone, anywhere. Confidence is that critical component to the team full of jump shooters. It’s also fleeting, as their mid-season, three-game losing streak can attest.
But that’s so yesterday. They’re on a three-game win streak now with a tuned-up engine and positive trends working in their favor. The most significant factor for the Huskies as they enter their third NCAAs in as many seasons is that they’re adding a player, Overton. He’s off his suspension for his charge of distributing liquor to a minor.
I appreciate coach,” Overton said. I’ve been through a lot here. He understands. I’m blessed to play another game with this team that I love.”
Overton is the guy who does those tough things better than anyone, taking charges, ripping turnovers, pressuring the perimeter. He gives this team more depth, particularly at point. Thomas played 123 of a possible 125 minutes in the Pac-10s. As Romar said, his backup to Thomas was Thomas. Now it’s Overton.
Overton can give Thomas relief, keeping his legs fresher. The team also may be more effective when both are on the floor. Overton tends to penetrate more than Thomas.
Romar said with Overton available Thomas “can really get after it on the defensive end and push it the entire time, knowing he can get a rest.”
It was a necessary but precarious situation to suspend Overton for the conference tournament, Romar has the full deck now. He can deal.
The one thing that the Huskies won’t take along to Charlotte is Pac-10 referees. Officiating is just different back East. It’s a contact sport and the referees let the big boys pound.
It’s something I like,” said senior center Matthew Bryan-Amaning, who was in foul trouble for most of the Arizona game and fouled out in overtime. Those other conferences have a lot of big guys and are a lot more physical. They let you play some more. The Pac-10 calls a lot of ticky-tack fouls. That doesn’t help us. A lot of times this season, I’ve been the center point of that. We have to take the hits as well as give them.”
The 6-foot-9 MBA will have to deal with Georgia’s best player and leading scorer, 6-10, 245-pound Trey Thompkins.
If they’re successful, the Huskies then take on Carolina’s tall order of 6-8 Harrison Barnes, 7-foot, 250-pound Tyler Zeller and 6-10 John Henson. Those three, by the way, also are the Tar Heels’ top three scorers.
MBA and 7-foot Aziz N’Diaye will need to stay clean and foul-free, particularly against Carolina. Romar also can work in his 2-3 zone, as he did effectively at times against Arizona. That helps minimize the size differential and holds down foul trouble.
On the other hand, he can use a smaller lineup to create mismatches on his end. This not only helps the Huskies generate their kind of uptempo style but his wings create problems for both Georgia and Carolina (if they get that far). Their perimeter guys are big, 6-6 Holiday, 6-5 Wilcox, 6-6 Ross and 6-6 Scott Suggs.
Coach Romar did it that way in his recruiting,” Holiday said. He wanted taller, longer wing guys who could still be able to play the smaller dudes.”
Those big wings also are better than average threats on offense, complicating Georgia’s game planning.
Those guys keep the defense honest,” Romar said, which allows Isaiah to do his thing a little more.”
Romar knows little about Georgia’s style. He has known coach Mark Fox, a former Husky assistant coach under Lynn Nance, for years and remembers he has a tendency stress man defense. After a couple days in the film room and conferring with coaches on his staff and around the country, he’ll have a more thorough game plan.
Regardless of the strategy and tactics, this team will go nowhere without those things not in the box score.
The keys to the game is always, don’t get out-hustled, get the loose balls,” Thomas said. We have drills for that in practice. We don’t ever want to get out-toughed. You have to get to loose balls first, got to be a more scrappier team.”