SEATTLE – Don’t try to tell Washington that its wins over Marquette and New Mexico in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament were upsets.
The Huskies expected to win both games, even as a No. 11 seed entering the tournament. Confidence comes when a team loaded with talent and high preseason expectations finally starts living up to its lofty billing.
“We knew that we were a good team coming into the season and lot of people expected us to do well and we weren’t able to do that during the season,” said guard Elston Turner, who has had a big role recently. “We had our highs and lows and a lot of people doubted us, but we kept it going and we had faith in ourselves and our coaches and we knew at some point it was going to start clicking. We’re glad that point is now.”
Thanks to a nine-game winning streak and their two tournament victories, the Huskies are back in the round of 16 for the first time since 2006 and just fifth time under the current tournament format.
And now Washington (26-9) gets its shot at making some real noise when it faces No. 2 seed West Virginia on Thursday night in the East Regional semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y. Since reaching the Final Four in 1953, Washington has never advanced past the round of 16.
“It’s big. It’s big for myself to be in this position,” star Quincy Pondexter said. “As a senior, you want to go out with the best ending possible. It adds to the legacy but I just want to see this team go as far as possible. I don’t care about anything else, personally.”
Two months ago, the NCAA tournament was the least of UW’s concerns. They were a dysfunctional unit that thrived at home, but struggled on the road and often disintegrated when things didn’t go its way. They were 3-5 in conference play and about to take their place among the season’s biggest underachievers.
No one’s quite sure what the lowest of the low was. It could have been the consecutive 17-point losses at Arizona and Arizona State that knocked Washington from the rankings, after getting as high as No. 12 in December, the buzzer-beating loss at UCLA or the 26-point rout two nights later against Southern Cal.
“Timing, the ball wasn’t bouncing our way, I don’t know. Things weren’t clicking the way they are (now) and we’ve found the (key) to winning games,” Pondexter said.
The depths of the Huskies’ struggles have made the turnaround that much sweeter. Their nine-game winning streak is the longest since an 11-game streak early in the 2006 season. They are 14-2 since Jan. 26, with nine of those victories coming away from home or on a neutral floor.
In the last nine games, the Huskies are shooting 50 percent and outscoring their opponents by an average of 12 points per game. In other words, this is the team everyone expected to see back in November, except now without the hype.