By Dennis J. Freeman
Los Angeles-Men’s basketball Pac-10 regular season champ Arizona went up against Washington’s Mighty Mite Isaiah Thomas and lost.
Thomas struck Arizona right in the gut with a last-second dagger, connecting on a step-back jumper at the buzzer to give Washington a 77-75 overtime win for the Huskies to claim the Pacific Life Pac-10 Conference Tournament at Staples Center.
Thomas, Washington’s unquestioned heart and soul leader, made one big play after another all night, scoring 28 points, handing off seven assists and grabbing five rebounds in the Huskies’ dramatic win. But before Thomas hit his game-winner, Washington needed some big-time buckets in regulation just to force overtime.
While Thomas came out as the hero for Washington, teammates C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross nailed down a couple of three-point shots to help force overtime. Wilcox sent the game into overtime with a deep three-point shot with five seconds remaining in regulation.
Before Wilcox’s big shot, Ross made a three-point attempt to keep Washington within striking distance to send the game into the extra period. All that drama played out before Thomas’ last shot heroics.
“With me, I feel like a lot of people have seen it before,” Thomas said after the game. “I score in bunches, so I’m really not worried about scoring. I was just worried about making plays for my teammates.
“When it came down to it, when I needed to score, I did. At the end of the day it was just about making plays and seeing where I could get people open shots. My teammates did a great job of knocking down shots and keeping confidence in themselves. Just doing the right thing. That’s the main thing with me.”
Arizona looked to be in position to win the title game, clinging to a 66-62 lead with just 26 seconds left. Ross’ three-pointer brought Washington with 66-65. But then Arizona’s Lamont Jones made both of his free throws to set up Wilcox’s game-tying shot.
“You can never be prouder of your team when they lay it all out on the floor and they play together as a group and they’re just pulling for one another, said Washington coach Lorenzo Romar. They’re all lost in the game, trying to put forth their best effort. You can’t be more proud when you see something like that happens. I think we’re able to see from our team that happened three days in a row.”
With former Secretary of State and current Stanford University professor Condoleezza Rice in attendance, both teams went to their run-n-gun style of basketball for 45 minutes. In those 45 minutes, Thomas and Washington pushed the pedal to the metal in effort, defense, hustle and heart.
“If we didn’t win the hustle plays, if we weren’t tough, we weren’t going to win the game, because Arizona is a team that usually wins the hustle plays,” Romar said. “They are a very, very tough minded team. But our guys stepped up and did what was necessary and showed a lot of toughness and resolve in winning that game.”
If it wasn’t for the hot shooting of Thomas in the first half, Washington very easily could have faced a blowout defeat. Thomas scored 19 points of Washington’s 33 points during the first 20 minutes of the game, striking from long distance on three-point bombs and slashing his way to the basket for layups.
Arizona didn’t have one player dominate in the first half the way Thomas did. They didn’t need to. The Wildcats negated Thomas’s herculean efforts with a balanced scoring attack with five players putting up five points or more on the scoreboard.
In the second half, Washington’s Mighty Mite got some much needed help. With Arizona making a more conscious effort to contain the explosive Thomas, Ross added 16 points.
“When you win, individual awards come, but the player of the tournament is not as important as the conference championship we just won,” Thomas said. “It’s praise to all my teammates, because without them I can’t win nothing, especially a game.”