Gant keeps UW together for historic run

PULLMAN - Bring up this year's NCAA tournament hopes, and Darnell Gant will quickly correct you. He'll bring up 2008, the year before he came to Montlake, the last time Washington didn't make the Big Dance. He'll talk about anything else but that run, but it's always on his mind.

"He wants to get back to the (NCAA) tournament for the fourth time, so he's always harping on us and getting in our ear about making sure we're playing right," said sophomore guard C.J. Wilcox after Washington's 59-55 comeback victory over in-state rival Washington State at Beasley Coliseum. "Just motivation…we're not going to lose this game. He kept saying 'Championship Game', because he knows we can get there if we're playing right. So he's always motivating us."

Washington State had plenty of motivation to spoil the Huskies' run; roughly 3500 students attended the game as part of the 'Zzu Cru' and they made life reasonably tough on the visitors. Even though they didn't take the over on the expected number of 'F The Huskies' chants, the pressure kept building on Washington as the Cougars extended their second-half lead to 47-34 with 11 minutes remaining in the game after a Brock Motum layin.

Gant, the Huskies' lone senior starter - making his first road start since the Colorado debacle on January 5th - remained calm, although his external persona was manic. If he was on the court, he was constantly chirping, communicating to his teammates and maintaining morale despite the deficit. If he was sent to the bench to catch his breath, the respite was short. If Isaiah Thomas, who had traveled from Sacramento to watch his Huskies play, was Washington's fifth coach on the day, Gant was the sixth.

"I never give up on my teammates," Gant said. "I knew there was still a chance to come back and win the game. The other team was walking around and smiling, and there was 11 minutes left. I knew. They were smiling and laughing like the game was won already, but they haven't got our punch. When we threw our punch, we kept going. We started getting stops on defense and they didn't know how to handle it. Then it turned into a win."

Gant wasn't just talking; his play backed up the chat. Motum, arguably the Pac-12's hottest player the last seven games averaging 24 points a contest, was the senior's responsibility. And in a game where Cougars like Abe Lodwick were rebounding like Ike Diogu, Gant's work on Motum was especially important. Even though Washington was out-rebounded by seven, they won the rebound battle by five in the second half, and Gant was able to control Motum to the tune of 17 points and four turnovers.

"In the past, we've put Darnell on Roeland Schaftenaar from Oregon State and we put him on James Harden, and he's come through for us." Romar said. "I thought Darnell fought him tooth and nail the entire time."

From down 47-34, Washington finished the game on a 25-8 run. During that period, Gant was in the game orchestrating Washington's fight back. Meanwhile, one of Washington State's key seniors, Marcus Capers, was subbed out with 10:05 remaining in the game. By the time WSU Head Coach Ken Bone put his senior back in with 8:25 left, the Huskies had come all the way back to within a point.

"I was expecting it," Capers would say of UW's run.

A key moment came with just under eight minutes to go; Gant fought hard for an offensive rebound and was able to secure a free throw to tie the game. With things in the balance a minute later, Washington guard Abdul Gaddy drove down the left side of the key, got caught up in the air, and turned the ball over. The following possession, Capers battled UW center Aziz N'diaye for a layin and-one. The Zzu Cru went nuts; Washington State was able to make a final run in front of their home crowd on Senior Night.

As they always do during a quick stoppage of play, the Huskies gathered together. The turnover fresh in his mind, Gaddy was expecting to get an earful from Gant. What he got was something different.

"I don't care about the turnover," Gant told Gaddy. "Me and you need to get these guys together and we need to make sure we do everything right, get stops on defense and don't turn the ball over anymore.

The Huskies finished with one more miscue the final seven minutes of the game.

Gant got one quick breather, with just under five minutes left. He came back in less than 30 seconds later. After his quick pep talk to Gaddy, the junior from Tacoma got busy on the offensive end, driving for a layin off a high screen and-one, and then getting two more free throws after another assertive drive down the right channel and toward the bucket.

"I just wanted to be aggressive and make plays," Gaddy said. "When we were down 13 we knew we had a chance to come back. They were missing free throws, and we had an opportunity. We had to take advantage. I wanted to be aggressive and make plays - whether that was scoring or making plays for my teammates."

Washington didn't play a very complete basketball game: They only shot 35 percent from the field; they got out-rebounded 42-35; they shot eight less free throws than the Cougars; their second-leading scorer Terrence Ross had his worst game of the year, scoring only two points and fouling out; N'Diaye fouled out with four-and-a-half minutes left.

With all that went wrong, the game was tied after Gant's free throw with 7:50 to go. It was 47-47. From that point, the Huskies shot 50 percent from the field; they out-rebounded WSU 10-5; they were 6-9 from the free throw line, while Washington State went 2-5 during the same stretch, part of a 20-6 second-half Coug meltdown from the stripe.

The Huskies won by doing the things good teams do when the game gets tight; they valued possession, the got stops, and they made their free throws. With the Huskies keying on Motum and Washington State's next-best three-point shooter - Lodwick - having just fouled out, Bone could have gone to freshman DaVonte Lacy. But with Lacy banged up with a finger injury, Bone took his chances with little-used Patrick Simon.

Simon had a clean look with 13 seconds left in front of the WSU bench and promptly airballed it. The ball came to Wilcox under the basket and he didn't have to jump to secure the rebound. Two free throws later, the game was over - thank you for playing, let's get out of here and back on the plane to Seattle.

"Great leadership," UW Head Coach Lorenzo Romar said of Gant's game. If you look at his stat line, it wasn't pretty; three points, 1-4 from the line, no assists, no blocks, no steals. But his four offensive rebounds were huge, as well as his veteran presence. "Darnell has been in almost every situation imaginable in his career, and he's able to impart a lot of wisdom to his teammates throughout the game," added Romar. "You can just hear the things he's saying are winning, impactful comments."

With California losing at Colorado Sunday, Washington's ticket to the Big Dance is basically punched. A win at USC this coming Thursday would give the Huskies at least a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title and at worst a two-seed in the conference tournament. A sweep of the Los Angeles schools would give UW their best conference record - 15-3 - since 1984.

Washington has only been denied an NCAA berth once with a 20-win season since the Pacific-8 Conference was founded in 1969, and never with 21 wins or more. No matter; a victory over the hapless Trojans puts Washington at that coveted 21-win plateau, and no regular-season title holder has ever missed the Big Dance.

Gant isn't thinking that way - and that's the reason he's now on at a place where people talk about history. His mantra this week is focus. That's it; no thoughts of finishing the regular season in his hometown, no talk of jumping ahead to what Washington might be seeded in the Pac-12 or NCAA Tournaments.

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