LOS ANGELES – A funny thing happened midway through the epic – no, not really a reach – basketball throwdown between Washington and Washington State on Thursday night.
The Huskies seemed to realize they were the team on the vaunted bubble, and not the Cougars.
Now, this wasn’t necessarily the reality during Washington’s 89-87 elimination of the Cougars in the quarterfinals of the Pacific-10 Conference basketball tournament. We can’t always be sure the NCAA selectors – the 10 Most Powerful Men This Side of Oz – always deal in reality, though they are armed with more data than Gallup.
But it should have been.
Yet now the reality is that Washington State’s season will continue in something other than next week’s fancy cotillion, even with the guest list expanded to 68 teams. Make your NIT plans now.
Maybe that’s the thing to remember. Without expansion, the Cougars may not have even been in the discussion.
It will also be worth remembering a similarly epic performance by the prodigal Klay Thompson – 43 points, and seemingly perfect on every big shot but one.
“Some shots he hit,” said Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas, “I was like, ‘Man, is that Kobe?’”
Not an unreasonable facsimile here at Bryant’s home court, the Staples Center. Which apparently means that Thompson’s ever-shrinking reputation as a big-game ghost can be dismissed for good.
As tense, entertaining and high-stakes the text was in the nightcap at Staples, there was also a subtext to remind us that not all bubbles are related to NCAA tournament worthiness.
Thompson was returned after an “indefinite” suspension for a pot bust last week became definitely just one game – though a huge one, an overtime loss to a listless UCLA team that surely could have enhanced the Cougars’ postseason credibility. Thompson didn’t need to score 43 points in that one, but a few would have helped. Instead, he only scored points for public contrition.
Meanwhile, occupying the Huskies bench was problem child Venoy Overton, charged this week with the gross misdemeanor of furnishing to minors – the prelude to sexual acts with a couple of 16-year-old girls that prosecutors felt they lacked the wherewithal to pursue criminally.
Hmm. Maybe the first time His Venoyance has been so adept at splitting the double team.
Thank heavens there was a basketball game to quiet all the jawing over what punishment should be meted out for which crime, degrees of misdemeanors and parsing old-fashioned moral turpitude against new-age herbal essence.
Having lost twice to the Cougars already and without their hound-dawg guard, the Huskies seemed ripe to go down for a third time, even if the oddsmakers didn’t think so. And it certainly looked that way for a half. Thompson warmed up quickly – he had 18 before intermission – and Faisel Aden made his usual entrance off the bench to score six in a row and give WSU a double-figure lead.
One disquieting factor: Point guard Reggie Moore, his right ankle injured last week in beating USC, was obviously slowed and in early foul trouble – a loss that more than balanced out Overton’s absence for UW.
“I probably shouldn’t have played,” Moore said, “but I love this team and I am dedicated to this team and I wasn’t going to let them be without me tonight.”
It put an incredible burden on Thompson, though Thomas was hardly surprised at his rival’s focus.
“I know these games he marked on the calendar,” he said.
But so did Thomas. His energy and play over the second half was remarkable in a very different way than Thompson’s, and the numbers – 21 points and 11 assists – were only part of it.
“He came out and just willed his team to win,” said UW coach Lorenzo Romar. “Special players can do that.”
And if no one else realized that the Huskies’ postseason position should have been just as precarious as Wazzu’s – we can compare defining victories later – he did.
“We always said, it’s win or go home,” Thomas said. “This could be the last game of the season if we had lost it.”
Well, not last last. But you get the idea, and so does Aden.
“It would probably be a miracle for us to get in (to the NCAAs),” he said.
But he wouldn’t mind getting the opportunity to make a case.
“We have some convincing wins against some good teams,” Aden said, “and we kind of have a momentum going right now. I think we’ve proven we can play with anybody – and if we bring it like we have been, we could beat anybody.”
Alas, the committee deals in more dids than coulds, though even it had to be moved by Thompson’s own attempt at willing victory.
“Not enough,” Thompson said through lips that barely parted. “Not enough to win. And that’s all that matters.”
More reality. The harshest kind.