Back to square one

CORVALLIS - With 42 seconds remaining, Justin Dentmon had a chance to make a big play – a quick feed to the post for an easy deuce, maybe square up for a three to really tighten up the necks of the Oregon State Beavers just enough to give the Washington Huskies some hope.

But instead, the sophomore jinx he has come to embrace like a favorite pillow reared its ugly head in nightmarish fashion, and with the miscue any chance at an NCAA at-large berth for UW died a very quick death.

With favorite son Brandon Roy – now a transplanted Portland Trailblazer – sitting courtside, the scene was set for these young pups to make a spirited run toward March Madness. With an improbable four-win mini-streak to end the season, the Huskies would have been that much closer to ensuring themselves a coveted slot in the dance.

A long shot? Absolutely. Out of the realm of possibility? It wasn't supposed to be. This team, who had lost to two top-10 teams by the same 65-61 margin, looked poised to make a run - perhaps even a sprint – toward the finish line.

Instead, they barely got out of the bus. And now, after Oregon State's solid 73-65 win over the Huskies, head coach Lorenzo Romar and his team are left with nothing but questions and wonderment for why it all went so horrifically wrong.

"When you are out on the floor, you can tell your guys' feet are moving quickly, quick reactions. I don't know if we had that early on," Romar said, wondering why his team got off to a seven-point deficit right out of the gate – definitely a harbinger of things to come. "Sometimes when that happens early, you think maybe you practiced too long, or didn't get enough rest. Sometimes that is an indicator.

I don't think that was the case today."

The Huskies had just come back from the bruising Big East, trading punches with the vaunted Pittsburgh Panthers for 40 minutes. "We thought we had turned a corner," said freshman forward Quincy Pondexter, who had 13 points for Washington. "We were close; we just needed that one big play to get us fired up."

They were close – at the end of the first half. But by the time the Huskies were down 10 with two-and-a-half minutes remaining, the team had run out of answers. The offensive fuel tank was on empty. And the Oregon State Beavers, from that point on, shot 28 free throws.

In a way, it was the worst kind of insult to heap onto an injurious performance by a team that had so much to gain – as well as so much to lose. One free-throw at a time…one free throw at a time…at points during the five hours it took to finish the final two-and-a-half minutes of the game, I could have sworn the Beavers missed a couple of shots from the charity stripe on purpose. Not really, but it sure seemed that way, as if they always knew they were playing the game to win, and there was nothing UW was ever going to do to change that.

They just didn't have it in them – for some reason.

"The road deal keeps coming back to get us," sophomore captain Jon Brockman said in the locker room afterward. "And it's even harder because of the importance of the two games (Oregon State and Oregon). I just don't know if we had the (NCAA) tournament in mind tonight. And that's a bad thing."

"There was a lot of pressure out there," added Dentmon, who finished the night with six turnovers, to only two assists. "We needed to win these last four games, and we were trying not to lose. We were trying to get the lead, and when we couldn't get it, we got really nervous."

It showed. For a team that had just played the No. 7 team in the country down to the wire clear across the country, the Huskies acted as if the 5,615 in attendance Thursday were really multiplied ten-fold. "Effort, intensity, purpose … all the things we didn't have tonight," Brockman said, as if he was reading a laundry list.

Given what was at stake, Washington's performance will probably be seen as the lowest point they have had all year long, in a year that has been full of ups and downs, and especially with the promise that this particular team – so ripe with hope and expectations – would eventually fulfill the hype.

"I thought we had been making progress, but tonight we took some steps back," Romar admitted, although he didn't have to. Anyone within eyeshot of a television would have drawn the same conclusion. "Even during our losing season we were playing our best basketball at the end of February. That definitely wasn't the case tonight."

"As a freshman, we got beat by Oregon State by 20, so I know how it feels," Roy said as he was visiting his former teammates. "It's time to make a run, finish strong."

He's not the only one that is holding out hope.

"If we still pull those out, we should be there on Selection Sunday," Pondexter said, not an ounce of irony dripping from his words. "I have faith. I came to Washington to play in the NCAA Tournament and to win a national championship. I still have hope."

He might have hope, but does his team have game? That's the question he should be focused on as the Huskies travel to Eugene Saturday to play against Oregon – a team that just might have gotten its swagger back after a hard-fought 64-59 win against Washington State.

Brockman is thinking tournament too, and true to his selfless ways he's thinking about what might end up being an opportunity missed. "These dudes haven't been there yet," Brockman said of the NCAA tournament. "I've been there once, and it was the funnest time I've ever had in my life. We've gotta figure something out. I've never rolled over. That's not in my mind at all.

"We'll keep fighting until that last second."

"It's going to be a hostile environment," Romar said of Saturday's tilt at venerable McArthur Court. "I think they (Oregon) are in the NCAA tournament, and they will be playing to stay there.

"It's not going to get any easier for us." Top Stories