PORTLAND — Thanks to Quincy Pondexter, even the supposedly vulnerable Washington Huskies didn’t go out early.
Pondexter scored a season-high 23 points and fourth-seeded Washington took advantage of early foul trouble to Mississippi State’s menacing Jarvis Varnado to race past the 13th-seeded Bulldogs 71-58 in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.
Jon Brockman had 14 rebounds and 10 points for the Huskies (26-8), who looked far better than the last time they played in this city, losing to Portland of the West Coast Conference to begin the season.
Barry Stewart and Phil Turner had 11 points each for Mississippi State (23-13), which had gotten in the NCAAs for the sixth time in eight years by winning six consecutive games — including four in its surprising romp to the Southeastern Conference tournament title.
Varnado, the national leader in blocked shots and MSU’s leading scorer, finished with five, to go along with seven points, three rebounds — and four fouls — in 23 minutes.
The Huskies, who won the Pac-10 regular-season title for their first outright league title since 1953, scored the first six points of the second half — four on a dunk and a layup by Pondexter. He was set up by smooth, no-look passes from freshman point guard Isaiah Thomas. That put Washington up 44-27, and the Huskies cruised from there into Saturday’s second round against Purdue.
The fifth-seeded Boilermakers (26-9), who beat Northern Iowa 61-56 in a bruising game earlier Thursday, will be Washington’s second straight conference-tournament champion opponent.
The first got punished by Pondexter.
The once-forgotten junior thrived with team leader Jon Brockman on the bench with fouls, fellow senior Justin Dentmon scoreless over the first 28 minutes and leading scorer Thomas content to feed Pondexter rather than force shots. Thomas and Dentmon finished with just 13 points, their second-lowest combined total this season.
Varnado, whom Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury had praised the day before for improving his ability to stay out of foul trouble this season, played only six minutes of the first half. He got his second foul midway through the period for reaching over Brockman’s back in an attempt for a rebound.
This season, the 6-foot-9 junior led the nation with 165 blocks to break the SEC record he had shared with Shaquille O’Neal. He led the country with 157 last year. And in his last NCAA tournament game, a year ago, Varnado blocked five shots against a Memphis team that made it to the national championship game.
But Thursday, he merely led Mississsippi State starters in time on the bench.
Brockman followed him to the sidelines five minutes later with his second foul, when Washington led 16-14. And that’s when Pondexter turned the game decisively Washington’s way.
The junior who had been frustrated for two years until emerging during Washington’s run to a first outright conference title in 56 years emphatically stepped into Brockman’s inside role with Varnado not around to stop him. He scored on a dunk, a putback and two turnaround jumpers during a 15-6 run.
That — and the Bulldogs missing 17 of their first 23 shots — put the Huskies ahead 31-20 late in the half as the large purple pack in the stands roared.
The Bulldogs missed 17 of their first 23 shots and shot just 34 percent overall. Ravern Johnson, who was averaging 12.2 points per game coming in, missed nine of his first 11 shots and was never a factor.
Pondexter finished the half with a drive from the wing and a basket while Romero Osby fouled him. The three-point play allowed the Huskies to tie their biggest lead at 38-27 at halftime, with a satisfied Pondexter clapping his hands as he jogged to the locker room.
The Bulldogs never got closer than that the rest of the way. Their furry mascot spent the final minutes glumly seated along the baseline, motionless with his legs crisscrossed.