BY DOUG DROWLEY
LAS VEGAS – The sigh of relief covered the entire 1,700 miles from southern Nevada to Seattle.
Despite controlling the pace almost from start to finish, the No. 1-seeded Washington Huskies needed a mistake from eighth-seeded USC with five seconds to play to ensure a 78-75, first-round Pac-12 Tournament victory (box) Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.
The Huskies advanced to the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday to face Colorado, which beat Oregon State 73-58 later Thursday.
The win likely assured UW a place in the NCAA tourney field — the first time since 2012 — when the 68-team field is announced Sunday.
With eight seconds to go, Washington had a three-point lead after Jaylen Nowell made one of two free throws. USC inbounded the ball and tried to push it up the floor quickly.
But an errant second pass from Nick Rakocevic cut through everyone, touched no one and bounced out of bounds for the last of the Trojans’ 17 turnovers.
In going wire-to-wire, the Huskies (25-7) repeatedly extended the advantage over the Trojans (16-17) to double digits. On each occasion, USC stormed back.
“They hit a lot of big shots at the most opportune times,” said Nowell, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, who led with 24 points.
“At the beginning of the game, we had great energy,” Washington coach Mike Hopkins said. “USC just kept coming back. Then the second half was a heavyweight fight. Good game. I think our guys showed a lot of resiliency.”
The Huskies had their first meaningful contest since the week of Feb. 20, when they swept Utah and Colorado at home to clinch the Pac-12 regular season title. The Huskies went 2-2 over their final four conference games to finish 15-3 in league play, three games ahead of second-place Arizona State.
UW’s first half showed no ill signs or hangover from that slow finish to the conference. The Huskies had leads of 14-4, 29-18 and 40-29 before settling for a 43-38 advantage at the half.
Even that came only after the teams traded 3-pointers in the final seven seconds of the half.
Washington got possession on the arrow with 12.7 seconds left, but six remained on the shot clock. Dominic Green wriggled free with seven seconds left for one of his three 3-pointers for a 43-35 lead. USC raced down and Kevin Porter Jr. stopped and banked a 26-footer at the buzzer.
Porter, one of several Trojans from the Seattle area (he played high school ball at Rainier Beach), shared team-high scoring honors with a career-high 17 points.
“I thought he played a terrific game,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Kevin came to play today.”
The Trojans came almost all the way back.
With 1:07 left, Jonah Mathews made a long 3-pointer to close to 72-71. But another Green trey with 39 seconds left was followed by a backcourt steal from defensive player of the year Mattise Thybulle. His breakaway windmill dunk with 33 seconds left seemed to seal the game at 77-71.
But Rakocevic’s putback cut the lead to 77-75. Nowell missed the second of two free throws to open the door again for USC. But as Hopkins tried and failed to get a time-out called, Rakocevic threw the ball away.
Thybulle was held to just four points, but had four rebounds and five steals, giving him 320 career steals. That’s one shy of conference record held by Oregon State’s Gary Payton, who went on to a stellar NBA career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
“Tisse is a great team player,” said senior guard David Crisp, who had 18 points and six assists. “He loves defense. I just told him in the last few minutes, ‘Show them who you are.’ But I haven’t seen a windmill like that before.”
Crisp had a chance to ice things at the line with 0.4 seconds remaining, when he was fouled after the final USC turnover. Though he missed both free throws, the Trojans got off no real attempt.
For a first-round game, Hopkins was pleased with how his team responded. The Huskies made a season-high 13 threes (28 attempts) in a marked improvement from the regular-season-ending loss at home to Oregon in which they scored a season-low 47 points.
“We’ve got an offensive arsenal,” Hopkins said. “When we share the ball like we did tonight (19 assists) . . . The ball was moving. The ball was popping. Everybody is making it. We can beat anybody and I think that’s the biggest key.”