Four years ago, Romar’s University of Washington squad came thisclose to moving on to the biggest weekend in college basketball. The 98-92 overtime loss to Connecticut in the Sweet 16, after UConn’s Rashad Anderson hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of regulation still eats at Romar.
“If I never experience, as a head coach, the opportunity to go to a Final Four or a national championship,” Romar said Monday afternoon, “that UConn game will always haunt me. I remember how close it was.”
This week, Romar and his Huskies get another chance. UW will face No. 2 seed West Virginia in the East Region semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday afternoon. A win in that game would put the Huskies (26-9) into the program’s first-ever Elite Eight game under the current NCAA tournament format.
While Romar is by no means looking past Thursday’s game, he sees another chance to get UW into the Final Four as one that the Huskies will cherish.
“Whenever you’re able to be successful and you experience some championship-type success, you’re excited for the time being. But then you want to get back,” Romar said Monday. “I’d say we’re pretty hungry.”
Romar, who was part of a national-championship team as an assistant at UCLA, will take to Syracuse a group of players that have never been to the Sweet 16. But the magnitude of the event hasn’t been lost on the Huskies.
“We’ve got a big opportunity to play in front of millions,” sophomore Darnell Gant said. “The other games, you’re playing, and there are a bunch of games going on; (the television coverage is) going from game to game.
“But now our game will be televised longer, maybe the whole game. We get to play in front of millions, and that’s a great opportunity for us.”
Junior Venoy Overton said that the pressure turns up this week after the 11th-seeded Huskies knocked off higher seeds Marquette and New Mexico in San Jose last week.
“The thought that there’s only 16 teams left, that gets in your head,” Overton said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of pressure because the competition goes up. We’ve got to play better basketball.”
Sophomore Isaiah Thomas, who is about as difficult to rattle as the Space Needle, was as calm as ever Monday while the Huskies prepared for today’s departure to Syracuse.
Asked whether the whole Sweet 16 thing has set in yet, Thomas shrugged and said: “Probably not until I get there and see the atmosphere and see what it’s all about.”
Then there was Gant, who couldn’t stop shifting his weight while talking about the upcoming days.
“I’m excited,” he said before an afternoon practice while the rest of campus is off on spring break. “I want to play now. ... The finals are out of the way, and all we have to do is focus on the game.
“We just have to enjoy this time. This time is for us, and it’s a great honor to be one of those 16 teams.”
The historical aspect of Thursday’s game is even bigger at UW, if only because no Huskies team has ever won three NCAA tournament games and gone that deep in a bracket. The 1953 team led by Bob Houbregs went to the Final Four but had to win just two games to get there. Four UW teams since then have gone to the Sweet 16 but have seen their journeys end there.
The last of those was in 2006, when UConn rallied to tie UW in regulation before beating Brandon Roy and Co. in overtime. While Connecticut’s Huskies went on to lose to upstart George Mason in the round of eight two days later, Romar still believes his Huskies would’ve made it to the Final Four.
“We were going to play against a team, George Mason, that I think was overlooked by a lot of teams that year,” Romar said Monday, referring to the Cinderella team that knocked off UConn and went to its first-ever Final Four. “… There is no way that we would’ve overlooked George Mason, because we felt like we were the underdog that year. That was our chance.
“When we were sitting in that locker room after that (UConn) game that night, I was just sitting there thinking: That was our chance. I hope we get another chance, because many teams have been in this situation and never made it back.”
This week, Romar will get his chance.
Romar and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins are friends. The relationship goes back to the early 1990s, when Romar was playing for an Athletes In Action team that was based in Cincinnati and Huggins was coaching the University of Cincinnati. Romar would attend Bearcats practices during an era that saw Huggins turn the program into a Final Four participant. “It was a pleasure watching someone organize a championship program,” Romar said Monday. … Romar is one of only 12 coaches who have made more than two Sweet 16 appearances since 2005, having taken UW to the regional semifinals three times in that span. Only four coaches — John Calipari (five), Bruce Pearl (four), Tom Izzo (four) and Roy Williams (four) — have done it more times than Romar over the same six-year period. … UW has an all-time record of 17-15 in NCAA tournament games, including a 7-4 mark under Romar.
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