With just over two minutes left in the Washington-Washington State game last night at Hec-Ed Pavillion and the Huskies drawing up the potential go-ahead play in their huddle, I looked nervously at a scoreboard that read 62-61, WSU.
Surrounded by a sea of Crimson and Gray-clad fans -- who must have worked as hard as I did Monday to get tickets -- I think my buddy Ryan noticed my trepidation, because he turned to me and said:
"These are the kinds of games we win. And the kind of game the Huskies lose."
Surer words haven't been spoken, as the No. 10 Cougars calmly beat their cross-state rivals for the fourth consecutive time in an atmosphere that was downright electric, showcasing everything I love about college basketball.
I suppose my anxiety -- which seems to run in the genetic code of most Cougs -- came from the knowledge that up until about five minutes left in the game, Husky big men Jon Brockman and Spencer Hawes had pretty much had their way inside, racking up 37 points, 18 rebounds, and 15 fouls on four Cougar big men between them.
Then, something completely inexplicable happened: Hawes and Brockman combined for exactly one rebound and one shot (a missed put-back by Brockman) in the final 5:35 as Justin Dentmon jacked up shot after shot. Granted, I think WSU had more to do with it than anyone wants to admit, as Robbie Cowgill and Ivory Clark -- each playing with four fouls -- did a GREAT job keeping the two from getting prime post position on the block down the stretch, but how in the world could the Huskies not get the ball in the hands of their two best players for FIVE MINUTES?
And I guess that's the biggest difference between their team and ours. Where the Cougars are disciplined and pateint, the Huskies can't recognize how to win when it matters most. Maybe it's coaching (as my Husky father irately suggested at the end of the game) or maybe it's just not having smart guards -- after all, can't you picture Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson or Will Conroy being intelligent enought to pass the ball into the post? -- but whatever it was, it was inexcusable.
With that, WSU gets a week off to rest its weary legs, something I'm convinced Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver need badly. And UW is left to contemplate what might have been.
It's not necessarily NIT time yet -- as my Cougar friends and I loudly suggested with the clock running out -- but it's getting tight. The Huskies really have to win at No. 7 Pitt on Saturday, because they need to offset three very bad road losses in the eyes of the Tournament selection committee. Win that, and win three out of four to finish the season and get to .500 in the Pac-10 -- which would have to include at least two wins over tournament-bound teams such as UCLA, USC and Oregon -- and you've got a fighting chance.
Other stuff I noticed last night:
- The true turning point in the game came when Tony Bennett switched up his defense and put 6-foot-10, 270-pound Aron Baynes on Jon Brockman. Daven Harmeling picked up two fast fouls trying to stop the McDonalds All-American, and Baynes was able to muscle Brockman, who's used to pretty much shoving everyone around. It's what allowed the Cougs to stretch their lead to eight, and while Brockman still was effective from time-to-time, the move definitely slowed him down.
- Speaking of Brockman, it's fitting that he wears the number 40, because he plays like a 40-year-old man. And I mean that as a quasi-compliment. There is no better player in the Pac-10 at getting away with more pushing, pulling, grabbing, holding, scratching and hooking than Brockman. He averages double-digit rebounds even while generally playing below the rim, and about the only thing he doesn't do to gain an advantage is pull on other players' armpit hair. My dad, a former basketball referee, says a player earns a certain amount of latitude when he consistently plays with that kind of 100-mph intensity. While it's precisely the kind of thing that endears him to Husky fans, as a fan of an opposing team, it sure is irritating to watch him bully his way around the basketball court. One has to wonder if he'd get that kind of latitude if the game had been in Pullman. I guess we'll find out on Saturday.
- Speaking of the refs (notice the progression here?), this seemed to be par for the course for Pac-10 officiating: Inconsistent and borderline inept. Hawes and Brockman got away with anything they wanted inside, often pushing and shoving their way around the bucket. On the other end, there were a couple of questionable fouls called as the Cougars took jumpshots. They refs truly seemed to get caught up in the energy of the game and it made them timid, as they vascillated between ticky-tack and swallowing their whistles.
- Lastly, this is how far Washington has fallen: I've never, ever seen a crowd get so excited over two consecutive baskets. On about three separate occasions, the Huskies made two shots in a row, and the place went bonkers.
PS: That photo came from Rod Mar of the Seattle Times -- one of the best sports photographers around. You can find the original of the photo here.