- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the regular season, Washington was easy to pick apart and poke at, leaving observers wondering whether or not it could truly be a special team in March.
The Huskies demonstrated an inability to win consistently on the road, and at times a failure to win games played below 70 points.
Yet, something has happened with this team when games matter more -- the Huskies seem to play with more purpose.
Washington has become a postseason team, a squad that can suddenly defend when it needs to, board when it has to, and lean on star junior guard Isaiah Thomas to make the big play when he must.
Criticizing the Huskies was fair and justifiable during the regular season. Washington had chances to prove it was an elite team but couldn’t win two games in Maui, lost at Texas A&M and then couldn’t win slow games at Stanford or Oregon State. It even fell apart down the stretch in its usually vaunted homecourt against Washington State and USC.
So why should there have been optimism?
“I just told our guys, ‘Dudes if we don’t win and play well right away, we’re going home,’’’ Thomas said of his pre-Pac-10 tournament conversation.
Well, they must have listened because the Huskies won the automatic berth in thrilling fashion with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Wildcats in the Pac-10 tournament final. Thomas took that shot. He wasn’t in position to take a game-winner against Arizona in Tucson a few weeks earlier as Derrick Williams blocked Washington from a victory.
And then the NCAA tournament selection committee took the No. 7-seeded Huskies and shipped them farther away than any other team when it sent the Seattle-based school to Charlotte to take on nearby No. 10 Georgia.
Yet Washington’s fans seemed to be in greater numbers than Georgia fans, and were certainly louder. And with good reason. Washington played UGA's halfcourt game and beat the Bulldogs by staying strong on the backboard and running the break effectively, earning a 68-65 win and a date with No. 2 seed and hometown favorite North Carolina on Sunday at 12:15 p.m.
“We understand now that we have to play defense to win games,’’ said Washington senior Justin Holiday. “Sometimes we haven’t been as focused on defense toward the end to win games.’’
Thomas said the momentum from the Pac-10 tournament did have an effect on the Huskies’ confidence here. Washington was the aggressor to start the second half after the two teams were tied 28-28 at halftime, the first close half of any of the three previous games in Charlotte on Friday.
“They’re a team that scores in bunches and they know their strength,’’ said Georgia’s Trey Thompkins. “They like to play the game fast-paced. They came down in the second half and started knocking down shots. They were contested. That just shows the quality of shooters and the quality of team that they have.’’
Georgia extended a great deal of respect to Washington on the postgame podium. UGA coach Mark Fox, a former Nevada assistant and head coach, is familiar with UW’s success in the past six years under coach Lorenzo Romar.
“We got the game we wanted, but we didn’t defend well in the second half,’’ Fox said. “We gave up almost 54 percent and didn’t rebound well enough. Even though we got the game we wanted to, you still have to make the plays at both ends and we didn’t do that. It was frustrating.’’
The balance Washington displayed was the reason the Huskies advanced to play the Tar Heels. Aziz N’Diaye, Matthew Bryan-Amaning and a collection of guards led by the recently reinstated Venoy Overton gang rebounded, according to Amaning, in a way that made it harder for the Bulldogs to focus on one player to keep off the glass.
And, of course, when the Huskies needed a big shot they turned to Thomas. He finished with 19 points, seven assists and two turnovers and made all seven free throw attempts.
Now the trick will be how Washington fares against a UNC team that has length and runs as well as any team in the country. The Huskies will get looks but if they don’t knock down shots and get some putbacks, then the Tar Heels certainly could run them out of the building. And this will be a road game for Washington with Carolina blue dominating the arena.
“I think we have a great chance because we like to get up and down,’’ Thomas said. “We both like to play the same style. It’s going to be a great game.’’