By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. — The sweetest thing wasn’t Justin Holiday’s ego-cracking shot rejection into the University of Washington bench.
It wasn’t Matthew Bryan-Amaning’s one-handed tomahawk jam.
Nor was it the sight of Brendan “Human Victory Cigar” Sherrer coming off the bench with more than a minute to play in a blowout win over New Mexico, the nation’s eighth-ranked team.
The sweetest thing for the Huskies on Saturday afternoon was their continued reversal of fortune. Things had gotten so sour.
Just five weeks ago, after suffering a rare home loss to USC, the Huskies were left for dead. The defending Pac-10 champions had virtually no chance of repeating, and it was probably going to take a miraculous run just to make the NCAA tournament.
Nine wins later, UW isn’t just in the Big Dance and playing the unfamiliar role of Cinderella, but the Huskies are also going to the Sweet 16.
Suffice to say, the word of the day for UW had something to do with the taste of honey.
“It’s sweet,” sophomore Darnell Gant said after the 11th-seeded Huskies shocked No. 3 seed New Mexico 82-64 on Saturday. “Everybody’s happy because we’re doing what we were supposed to be doing all year. … Early on we were struggling, but we all had faith.”
After knocking off the East Region’s No. 6 and No. 3 seeds in less than 48 hours, the Huskies (26-9) play in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday at 4:10 p.m. (PDT) against the winner of today’s West Virginia-Missouri game.
It marks the third time in six seasons that UW has advanced to the Round of 16 and the fifth time since the NCAA field expanded to include 64 teams. The Huskies have never won more than two consecutive NCAA tournament games in a single season, with their deepest run coming as a Final Four participant in the 22-team field in 1953.
“It’s a blessing from God,” said sophomore Isaiah Thomas, who scored nine of his 15 points during a first half that saw UW open up a 12-point lead. “I’ve never been (to the Sweet 16) before, and nobody on this team has ever been here before.
“It’s a blessing, and we’re going to experience something that we’ve never experienced in our life.”
For this Huskies team, a trip to the Round of 16 might be sweeter than any of the school’s previous ventures. UW struggled to a 4-5 record in the month of January and appeared headed for one of those alphabet postseason tournaments like the NIT or CBI through most of the conference season.
But a team meeting after the Jan. 23 loss at USC, a revamped starting lineup that included Holiday, and an us-against-the-world mentality helped spark the Huskies to 14 wins in their next 16 games — the biggest of which was Saturday’s shocker.
“We were getting laughed at nationally,” said senior Quincy Pondexter, who had a team-high 18 points Saturday. “We knew we were a better team than that, and we had to go out and prove it.”
UW certainly proved itself against the Lobos, although not all of the Huskies considered the 11-seed-over-3-seed game an upset.
“Call it what you want,” Thomas said. “Like I’ve said, once the NCAA tournament starts, the seedings go out the window. You can call this an upset, but I don’t think it was.”
Some Huskies have felt like an underdog for most of the season, ever since dropping from the national rankings on Jan. 12. The national slight they perceived helped fuel UW to turn things around.
“I watch SportsCenter every night,” Pondexter said, “and that hasn’t been easy because all they do is talk about other teams.”
Added junior Venoy Overton: “Everyone’s got something to say. The questions don’t get answered until you’re on the court.”
From the outset of Saturday’s game, the Huskies quieted the doubters. UW matched New Mexico (30-5) for nine minutes before going on a 12-2 run to open up a 31-21 lead with 6:44 remaining. After Thomas nailed a 3-pointer from the wing, the Lobos called a timeout and tried to get composed.
But the lead swelled to 12 at halftime, and the Huskies continued to pour it on as the second half started. UW led 60-40 with 12 minutes left when a television timeout stopped play, and head coach Lorenzo Romar reminded the Huskies to not let up.
Said Gant: “Coach Romar was telling us that we were down 15 at that same point (in Thursday’s win over Marquette): ‘Just put your foot on their neck.’ And we just kept going. We had to keep playing and keeping playing hard, and they would go away eventually.”
The Lobos did.
After leading by as many as 24 points, UW cruised to their largest margin of victory in an NCAA tourney game since the 1953 Huskies beat Seattle University 92-70.
The game was so under control that Sherrer, a walk-on from Archbishop Murphy High School, was summoned from the bench with 1:26 remaining. He got fouled 20 seconds later but missed both free throws.
The Huskies certainly didn’t need them.
“That’s the best team that’s played against us in any given night,” New Mexico coach Steve Alford said after the game. “We didn’t do some things well (Saturday), but I thought Washington was terrific.”
Now UW will get a few days of rest _ the school has spring break this week _ and some occasional practices before heading east to face East No. 2 seed West Virginia or No. 10 seed Missouri.
The Huskies’ Overton already has a good idea of what the national media will be saying about that game, no matter which team UW faces.
“We’re still going to be the underdog,” he said. “If we’ve got to play West Virginia, West Virginia’s too tough. If we play Missouri, Missouri’s too tough.
“We just let them be the critics, and we’ll be the players.”
One so-called critic, New Mexico star Darington Hobson, has a pretty good idea of what might happen if the Huskies and No. 2 seed West Virginia do battle on Thursday. It’s safe to say that he’s a UW believer now.
“If they can continue to play the way they’ve been playing, and shooting the way they’ve been shooting,” he said Saturday night, “I don’t know how they can’t keep going.
“I could see them beat West Virginia, even though Syracuse is in West Virginia’s backyard. That should be a good matchup.”