Huskies Hold Serve in Title Chase

SEATTLE - As Washington was taking care of their business Thursday at Alaska Airlines Arena, the California Golden Bears were doing the same in Berkeley against Oregon, although the Ducks were playing the role of the unwelcome guest compared to the Sun Devils.

In a Pac-12 hoops title race that feels more like a tennis match, both UW and Cal - tied at 10-3 in conference play - have been smashing volleys back and forth, waiting for the other club to crack.

The onus was on the Bears this time around, as Oregon was poised for the upset. They were up by as many as eight points with five minutes left before Cal's veterans took control and turned the game in their favor with a 21-10 run to finish things off.

That's how champions survive and advance in what has become something akin to a playoff; one loss and you're seemingly out of the chase. While Cal was doing just that, the Huskies were coasting. Up by as many as 24 in the second half, ASU went on a 20-6 run to eventually drop the game by eight in Seattle. UW wanted to end the game on a high note, but they finished on fumes. Granted, it was a chance for Lorenzo Romar to unload his bench and give them a chance to play - including senior Brendan Sherrer, the Huskies' 'Human Victory Cigar' - but the ghost had long been given up before Romar subbed his veterans.

"Played well first half, played bad the second half. Simple, really," said junior guard Abdul Gaddy, who had three turnovers to go with his three points and eight assists. "We didn't play as physical as the first half. We got bored with success, really. We tried to get the game over with. We have to mature better and handle success better. We've been playing so well and doing so much better with that, that we took a little step back with that. We have to get ourselves together and make sure that doesn't happen on Saturday. It's like turning a switch on, and you can't play like that. You can't just turn the switch on and off; you have to keep it on all the time. That was immature of us, but we can bounce back from it. We know how to handle it. We've been through it before."

They have been through it before, and that's part of the problem. Gaddy and his teammates must not be History majors, because they have repeated the same mistakes on the way toward a 10-3 league mark that has been an absolute grind. They are repeating their mistakes over and over. But Gaddy is right about one thing; the Huskies had put themselves in a place where the game had gotten boring and uninspiring. The first 20 minutes of play was as good a half of basketball that they have played all year long; they shot 61 percent from the field, including 4-9 from three, C.J. Wilcox found his stroke again, they out-rebounded ASU and had nine first-half assists. They also beat the Sun Devils in every category they keep track of - points in the paint (22-18), points off turnovers (18-4), second-chance points (6-5), fast-break points (4-2), and bench points (20-6)

"What we did in the first half would make us competitive with just about anybody we play," Romar added after the game. "I don't like the way we finished the game but we came up with another victory.  So, we're one step closer to finishing this up the right way."

Romar will have plenty of teachable moments Friday as they prepare for an early Saturday clash with Arizona, a game with monumental implications. First, it's senior day for Sherrer and Darnell Gant; secondly it's the last chance for UW to get a home win as they finish out their regular-season with three road games; lastly it's just one more chance to hold serve and throw the pressure back on Cal to see how they handle the pressure. The Bears also finish their conference slate with three big road tests, so the tension will no doubt mount with each check of the clock during the league's remaining four games.

One of the key elements to Washington's closing run will be their health. While C.J. Wilcox showed significant progress in shaking off his shooting rust Thursday, a new problem emerged; the left wrist of center Aziz N'diaye. The junior from Senegal suffered the injury Sunday at Oregon State, and it seemed to have worsened in the first half against ASU when the 7-footer took a tumble. But he came back with two minutes left to intermission, and his 24 game minutes proved vital - as much for his defensive presence than his 12 points and four rebounds.

"We need him," Gant said of N'Diaye. "He's our anchor. We need him in the middle being a presence. He's a force down low, and when he's scoring with his back to the basket that helps us a lot too. He's active; he's an active big man. We really need him. We need to make sure we keep him healthy. He's a warrior; he plays through pain and he tries to fight through adversity."

Right now the adversity is squarely on Washington's shoulders to finish this thing off the right way. Even though both schools are currently 8-2 in their last 10 games and trending up, the Bears hold more currency in the more important race - the quest to earn NCAA Tournament eligibility. Sure, both teams would be favorites to earn the automatic league berth with a Pac-12 Tournament title - something the Huskies have done the last two years - but they can do themselves a world of good if they end up at least tying California for the regular-season crown. The Bears would earn the No. 1 seed into the Pac-12 Tournament based on their 69-66 win over UW in Seattle, but that would be of little consequence by then.

Regardless of how awful the national perception is of the Pac-12 Conference - and it's pretty stinky - there's no Bracketologist with stones big enough to keep a conference champion out of the Big Dance, especially one from one of the big six power conferences. Right now the Huskies would play-in versus Miami (FL) for the right to challenge No. 4 seed Wisconsin in the East Bracket of the NCAA Tournament, according to noted Bracketologist Joe Lunardi of ESPN.

But before the Arizona State win, they were considered one of the last four out of the Dance. With a 10-3 Pac-12 Conference record? How is that possible? How could their place in the NCAA pecking order be placed so precariously? Again, it goes to the national perception that the Pac-12 sucks this year, a perception lent massive amounts of credit when a league-leader like Washington goes on the road and loses by 25 to a non-NCAA tournament team like Oregon.

And that's what Washington has to avoid at all costs - a big letdown away from home against teams like Washington State or UCLA. Any missteps there, and the Huskies will have no alternative but to win the Pac-12 Tournament for a third-straight time to hold any thoughts of a post-season they envisioned at the beginning of the year.

None of it will matter if UW doesn't take care of business against Arizona at noon Saturday. "It's big," Gaddy said. "We want to stay in first place; we can control our own destiny these last five games. We just have to come out and take it to each team. Each team is going to give us their best game, and we just have to be prepared every time."

If they play to their potential, as they did in the first half against ASU - it won't be an issue. If they come in thinking they'll be able to pull a result out of the fire no matter what's happening in-game, they'll lose. If there was ever a time where the Huskies needed to find a killer instinct, Saturday wouldn't be soon enough.

"We're still learning," Romar said.  "We're still growing.  We're trying to build a machine that plays one way, the right way."

The Huskies have shown that when they play the right way - Husky Basketball - they won't be beat. If they play defense, hold onto the basketball, and remain patient on offense, Washington will be 11-3 by roughly 2 pm west coast time. And that means California will have about five hours to think plenty about their 7 pm game with OSU, a team that's capable of scoring in bunches and pulling upsets.

Your serve, UW. 

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