The University of Washington senior made a save, an ankle-breaking crossover and a game-winning shot.
And for that, he gets to play one more game close to home.
With his parents and several other friends and family members in the crowd of 15,427 at the San Jose Sharks’ home arena, Pondexter made the biggest shot of his UW career.
“Not only is it close to my home, this is the NCAA tournament,” the Fresno native said after hitting a driving shot with 1.7 seconds left to beat Marquette 80-78 on Thursday. “There is no other feeling like this. It’s a moment I’ll cherish forever.”
For most of the night, Pondexter’s final trip to the NCAA tournament looked like it might end in a nightmare. He scored just four points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half and was unable to stop the Golden Eagles from building a 15-point lead eight minutes into the second half.
Pondexter said he had one overriding motivation for getting back on track.
“The fear of it being my last collegiate game ever,” he said. “I think that’s what propelled me to play well in the second half. I know my teammates didn’t want to go home. I definitely didn’t want to go home. And I had to step up.”
By not going home — back to the UW campus, anyway — Pondexter gets to play another game near his hometown. Fresno is about 21/2 hours away from San Jose, and Pondexter has always relished his opportunities to play in the Bay Area.
But he’s never had a moment like he did Thursday night.
After helping lead a 13-2 spurt that eventually grew to 20-6 and put UW back in the game, Pondexter saved his best for last.
He followed his own miss with 2:49 remaining to tie the score at 76, then had a chance to put the Huskies ahead in the final minute.
With the score tied at 78 and about 45 seconds remaining, Pondexter got an isolation on the left block and started backing down 6-foot-6 Marquette forward Jimmy Butler, with whom Pondexter had exchanged words, glares and an occasional shove throughout the game. Pondexter got position in the lane, about 6 feet out in front of the rim, but passed off to teammate Isaiah Thomas when a second defender came in.
Thomas fired an open 3-point shot with 34 seconds left but missed to the left, and the ball bounced off toward the press area on the far side. Pondexter chased down the ball, barely tipping it back into play and to teammate Elston Turner.
Pondexter got the ball back at the top of the key, with Butler in front of him, and let the clock run down inside of 10 seconds before making his move.
The 6-6 senior used a crossover dribble to get a step to Butler’s right, then drove to the basket and hit a bank shot with 1.7 seconds to go.
“As a senior, you don’t want that to be your last game,” Pondexter said. “You don’t want to end on a sour note, and I had to step up for our team to win.”
Head coach Lorenzo Romar considered calling a timeout when Pondexter had the ball at the top of the key, but in the end he decided to let his senior close it out.
“I felt totally comfortable with him with the basketball, thinking that he would make the right decision,” Romar said.
While Pondexter’s shot will forever go down in UW lore, he wanted to make certain that Thursday’s game was remembered for more than just that.
“Everyone stepped up,” said Pondexter, who finished with 18 points. “Elston made some huge shots. Venoy (Overton) was terrorizing the ball defensively. Isaiah locked up with (Darius Johnson-Odom), who was their best player tonight.
“... I’m glad my teammates played that well to get me in position to make that shot. I’m just so happy right now, I don’t know what to say.”
Thanks to his trifecta, Pondexter will get another chance to express himself in front of the hometown fans on Saturday afternoon.
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