Before their final home game of the season, against Stanford last
Saturday, the Washington Huskies decided they would approach the
top-ranked, 26-0 Cardinal as "just another Pac-10 team," as guard
Brandon Roy put it. Somehow Huskies fans never got the message.
Twenty-four hours after a few dozen of them had established the
first-ever tent city outside Hec Edmundson Pavilion, 10,086
people (the biggest crowd for a Huskies game in 35 years) jammed
the place, all but a handful clad in Washington purple and ready
to scream the visitors into submission. One fan wore an enormous
fake Afro, a back-handed tribute to Stanford's All-America
forward, Josh Childress, who had vowed to keep growing his
towering 'do as long as his team kept winning. Several other fans
brandished black umbrellas because, well, this was Seattle.
Boy, did it rain on Stanford's parade. Employing an aggressive
man-to-man defense and showing a poise that belied its youth,
Washington outscrapped, outrebounded and outshot one of the
grittiest teams in the nation and won with relative ease, 75-62.
The victory gave the surging Huskies a 12-6 record in the Pac-10,
good for second place in the league, and made a case for their
inclusion in the NCAA tournament no matter what happens in this
week's conference tournament. The purple throng that danced on
the court after the game was so vast and thick that the
claustrophobic Roy, who had scored 12 points and hauled down a
team-high seven rebounds, panicked until his teammates elbowed
him a path to daylight. Safely back in the locker room, the 6'6"
sophomore reflected on his team's feat. "Beating Arizona was
fun," said Roy, referring to Washington's season sweep of another
Pac-10 rival (and the nation's No. 21 team), "but this was
amazing. This was the biggest game of my life."
The Huskies' second-year coach, Lorenzo Romar, had prior
experience in knocking off No. 1 teams. Four years ago his Saint
Louis Billikens beat top-ranked Cincinnati, and 25 years ago,
when he was a guard at Washington, he scored 10 points in the
Huskies' only other upset of a No. 1, a 69-68 victory over UCLA.
Romar acknowledged that the win over Stanford was one of the most
important in the Huskies' history. "Beating a Number 1 team when
there's nothing at stake is something you never forget," he says,
"but there was a lot more on the line in this game."
At stake for Stanford was the distinction of becoming the first
team to finish the Pac-10 season 18-0. Washington, for its part,
was trying to prove that it deserved a berth in the NCAA
tournament for the first time since 1999, a goal that would have
seemed laughable in mid-January. Back then the Huskies were dead
last in the Pac-10 with an 0-5 conference record. But after
overcoming a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Oregon State
103-99 in overtime on Jan. 17, Washington, which starts four
sophomores and a junior, has been one of the hottest teams in the
country, winning 12 of its final 13 Pac-10 games.
"Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you make
adjustments," Romar says. "After the Oregon State game, our guys
started playing with more of a purpose, and they started playing
together, which is something they weren't doing 40 minutes a
Even when Washington was struggling, team chemistry was never an
issue. Ten Huskies hail from the greater Seattle area. Four
played together at Garfield High, including Roy; the starting
point guard, 6'2" junior Will Conroy; and the aptly named 6'5"
junior guard Tre Simmons, who nailed four three-pointers against
Stanford. "We all pretty much knew each other from high school,
because Seattle isn't very big," Roy says. "We all love being
with each other now. We even do sleepovers at each other's places
just so we can be together."
At week's end Roy led Washington in scoring, with 13.4 points per
game, but the Huskies' undisputed sparkplug and fan favorite is
sophomore guard Nate Robinson, another Seattleite, who scored 13
points and grabbed five rebounds against the Cardinal. Robinson's
listed height of 5'9" appears to be an exaggeration. The oldest
son of former Huskies running back Jacque Robinson (the MVP of
the 1982 Rose Bowl and the '85 Orange Bowl), Nate started at
cornerback for Washington in 2002, but before last season he
dropped football to focus on basketball. He spends most weekend
evenings at Rainier Community Center, near where he grew up,
shooting until the place closes at 2 a.m. His jump shot has
improved accordingly, and it was he who helped resuscitate the
Huskies' season with the three-pointer that sent the Oregon State
game into overtime. But it's Robinson's electrifying hops that
have fans buzzing, notably an alley-oop dunk against Arizona on
Jan. 29. Several people present at that game reported seeing
Robinson's head at the level of the rim. "He's one of the few
guys I've been around, NBA or otherwise, who at 5'9" can change a
game on both ends of the floor," says Romar.
Robinson also keeps his teammates loose, instigating games of tag
and making competitions out of the most mundane activities.
"He'll race to be the first one out the door or the first one to
the bathroom to brush his teeth," says Roy, Robinson's frequent
road roommate. "He is the most competitive person I've ever
Robinson has been in a lot of high-level competitions--in 2002 he
led Rainier Beach High to the Class AAA state basketball
championship--but he doesn't think he ever anticipated a game as
much as he did the one against Stanford. "This was our chance to
shock the world," he said afterward.
Two days before, Washington State, which would finish tied for
seventh in the Pac-10, nearly upstaged its in-state rival by
taking the Cardinal to the wire in Pullman. Stanford needed a
seven-point comeback in the last 17.2 seconds, capped by a
desperation three-pointer by guard Matt Lottich with time
expiring, to escape with a 63-61 win. Two days later the
Cardinal, looking like just another Pac-10 team, dug itself into
another early hole, shooting 39.1% and hitting just 5 of 24 from
beyond the arc (its second-worst three-point shooting game of the
season). Seemingly rattled by the Huskies' quickness and
suffocating defense--not to mention the crowd's ear-splitting
roar--Stanford turned the ball over 13 times before intermission.
Using a zone defense to start the second half, the Cardinal
closed a 10-point deficit to one but couldn't get over the hump.
"We've said all along that we weren't trying to go undefeated,
though it would have been nice," said center Rob Little after the
game. "You can't make as many mistakes as we did on the road and
expect to win. You can't always have a miraculous comeback."
Miraculous as the Huskies' own comeback has been, it may not be
enough to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Washington's weak RPI (73) could cost the Huskies an at-large bid
should they fail to get the automatic invitation that goes with
winning the league tournament. Since 1993, every Pac-10 team that
has won 11 or more conference games has made it into the NCAA
tournament. But since 1991 only five teams with an RPI lower than
60 have received at-large bids. "This game wasn't a fluke," Roy
says of the Stanford upset. "The committee members have to ask
themselves, 'Are there 65 teams better than Washington?' I think
they'll say no."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK BLOCK PARTY Mike Jensen was one of the Huskies who battled Little and the Cardinal front line to a standstill.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SPARKPLUG The 5'9" Robinson has come up big.
"The COMMITTEE MEMBERS have to ask themselves," says Roy, "'Are
there 65 teams better than Washington?'"