LOS ANGELES -- The roller-coaster final of the Pacific 10 Conference tournament Saturday between Washington and California, which saw 22 lead changes and 12 ties, mirrored the constantly fluctuating and never predictable season the downtrodden league had in 2009-10. The way both teams played, however, belied the national perception the conference was sending only one team to the NCAA tournament because it was contractually obligated to.
Though Washington (24-9) earned the conference's automatic bid with a 79-75 win, taking the Huskies off the bubble they have been living on since regular season's end, there is no question Cal (23-10) is just as deserving after winning the regular-season conference title outright. After splitting the season series, both teams basically 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, with only two tournament-worthy teams after sending six to the dance last season, it at least saved its best performance for last (and more important 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 Staples Center. It wasn't simply a well-played second half or an exciting final two minutes -- both teams came out swinging like a couple of boxers going for broke in the opening round and were still landing punches in the 12th round.
Washington, however, didn't leave its fate up to the judges, going for the knockout blow late in the game when Elston Turner scored five straight points, including a 3-pointer, after a 14-0 run by Cal to give Washington the lead for good with 3:22 remaining.
After depending on the play of leading scorers Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher all season, the Golden Bears were forced to look elsewhere as their talented senior duo had combined for only 10 points with 9:30 left. Fellow seniors Jamal Boykin, who had 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 and essentially shutting down 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," Thomas said. "We brought all the motivation we could in 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 14 in the country in both polls. But as the season progressed, you would have had a better chance of picking Paris Hilton's next boyfriend than predicting the two teams that would play in the Pac-10 tournament final as the teams beat each other up while failing to do much out of conference.
"Some of the losses we got early on in the league hurt the perception, so when that was what people thought, there was no way we could beat anybody in league and have it help, and if we lost to anybody in the league it was only going to hurt," Montgomery said. "Washington just really lost [Jon] 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, their chances grew more grim before Saturday's game because of Houston's upset win in the Conference USA final over No. 25 Texas El Paso, not to mention big wins by fellow bubble teams Minnesota and Mississippi State over ranked teams. If Washington had not beaten Cal on Saturday, there was a fairly good chance the Huskies would be sitting home next week.
After the game, Pondexter smiled as he hugged the Pac-10 tournament trophy when asked what it will be like to wake up to Selection Sunday now that he doesn't have to worry about his team getting picked.
"I'm going to be able to sleep tonight finally," Pondexter said. "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. There are so many questions that come up but at the end of the day we told each other if we handle business we don't need a committee to decide if we're good enough; we'll be automatically in."
While Arizona State (22-10) has virtually no chance of getting an at-large bid after it lost to Stanford 70-61 in its opening Pac-10 tournament game, Montgomery was amazed to hear Cal had suddenly gone from being a "lock" to finding itself "on the bubble" despite winning the regular-season conference title outright.
"It would be astounding to me if the regular-season Pac-10 champion wasn't in the tournament," Montgomery said. "That would be absolutely incredible. That would set a precedent that is unheard of. We lost to some good teams early but if people would do their homework all of them were in the top 10 and none of them were at home and we had key players out. I don't know what else we could do. It's not even worth commenting on. It completely negates the purpose of a conference to play 18 games and win it and if you're a power conference [not make the NCAA tournament]. I just think that's talk."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.