LOS ANGELES – Only a few hundred Washington fans were left in Staples Center when the celebrating Huskies started an impromptu dunk contest. They tried one elaborate slam after another on the net-less hoop, their purple Pac-10 tournament title hats flying off their heads to the barking crowd’s delight.
Now that these Huskies are rolling after an inconsistent season, they just don’t want to put down the basketball.
With a thrilling 79-75 victory over California to win the conference tournament Saturday, they assured themselves of at least one more big-time game together.
Quincy Pondexter scored 18 points, Isaiah Thomas added 16 and Washington furiously rallied from a late deficit before barely protecting its own lead. Venoy Overton hit two free throws with 2.1 seconds left for the third-seeded Huskies (24-9), who emphatically salvaged their up-and-down season with seven straight wins – none more entertaining than this back-and-forth finale.
“What a college basketball game,” said coach Lorenzo Romar, who triumphantly cut the last strand on the net before holding it aloft to Washington’s fans. “It was obvious something was on the line for both teams. I couldn’t be happier to see these guys experience a championship-type situation.”
The Huskies brought the net and the Pac-10’s automatic NCAA tournament bid home to Seattle with a come-from-behind win over the top-seeded Golden Bears (23-10), who also are almost certainly headed to the NCAAs with their first regular-season league title in a half-century.
“We’re going to be able to sleep tonight – finally, man,” said Pondexter, the Huskies’ only senior. “There’s so many questions that come about, but we told each other that if we take care of business, we don’t need a committee to tell us if we’re good enough.”
After a four-day tournament filled with blowouts and poorly played games, Cal and Washington finally put on a show worthy of the Staples Center stage – albeit in front of thousands of empty seats. Both teams made impressive rallies while the lead swung wildly in the final minutes.
Cal trailed 61-52 with 11 minutes to go before scoring 14 consecutive points and holding Washington scoreless for more than 51/2 minutes. The Bears led 66-61, but the Huskies made their own 12-2 rally, reclaiming the lead with 3:22 left on a 3-pointer by Elston Turner, who didn’t score until the game’s final minutes.
Jerome Randle halved the Huskies’ lead on a 3-pointer with 1:02 left, and Pondexter committed a turnover – but Randle was fouled on a loose ball with 4.4 seconds left, preventing him from trying a tying 3-pointer.
Randle made the first shot and missed the second intentionally, but he was called for stepping over the line too quickly before Jamal Boykin could grab the rebound, and Overton’s free throws sealed it for Washington.
Theo Robertson scored 25 points and Boykin added 20 points and 14 rebounds for the Bears, whose six-game winning streak ended in a fitting final between the Pac-10’s last two regular-season champions. Randle managed just 12 points while battling foul trouble.
Cal has never won the conference tourney, but was the top seed for the first time.
The Huskies, who won the 2005 tournament title, entered this tourney with nine wins in their final 11 games.