LOS ANGELES -- The Pac-10 tournament final Saturday between Washington and Cal saw 22 lead changes and 12 ties, and mirrored the constantly fluctuating season the downtrodden conference had. The way both teams played, however, belied the national perception the league was only sending one team to the NCAA tournament.
While Washington (24-9) earned the conference’s automatic bid with a 79-75 win, there is no question Cal (23-10) is just as deserving. After splitting the season series, both seemed to split baskets from the opening tip in what was easily the best game of an otherwise forgettable tournament played in front of a mostly empty arena the past four days.
As maligned as the Pac-10 has been this season, it at least saved its best performance for a national television audience. It would be hard to find a better tournament final from start to finish than the one Washington and Cal put on at the Staples Center.
Elston Turner's five straight points, including a 3-pointer, put Washington ahead for good, 71-68, with 3:22 remaining.
After depending on the play of leading scorers Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher all season, the Bears were forced to look elsewhere as their talented senior duo had combined for just 10 points with 9:30 left in the game. Fellow seniors Jamal Boykin, who finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds, and Theo Robertson, who had 25 points, were the only reasons Cal was in the game.
“He got two fouls early which is a little unusual,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery of Randle. “We had him [Randle] out of the game for a fair portion trying to get him back and forth and not get a third foul. He’s small so they can post him with a variety of different people. It caused a problem, no question.”
Washington guard Isaiah Thomas, who was named the tournament’s most valuable player, scored 16 points and smiled when asked about guarding Randle. The Huskies made it known they believed Washington forward Quincy Pondexter, who scored 18 points, should have been named the conference’s player of the year over Randle.
“I feel [Pondexter] should have won player of the year and I feel like we should have won the Pac-10 championship,” said Thomas. “We brought all the motivation we could to get this win.”
This was the marquee final the Pac-10 had hoped for in the preseason when Cal and Washington were ranked in the top 15 in the country in both polls. As the season progressed it became impossible to predict which teams would play in the Pac-10 tournament final.
“Some of the losses we got early on in the league hurt the perception,” Montgomery said. “Washington just really lost Brockman from last year. They’re pretty good. I don’t know how there could have been any question about Washington getting in. But if there was, it’s obviously erased. Now we just have to wait and see if they give Arizona State a tumble.”
As much as the Huskies felt they deserved to be in the NCAA tournament, if they had not beaten Cal on Saturday, there was a fairly good chance they would be sitting home next week.
After the game, Pondexter smiled as he hugged the Pac-10 tournament trophy.
“I’m going to be able to sleep tonight finally,” said Pondexter. “I’ve been going to sleep watching 'SportsCenter' every night hearing if we’re in or out, or on the bubble or off the bubble. ... We told each other if we handle business we don’t need a committee to decide if we’re good enough.”