By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — Silence.
That was the only sound coming from the University of Washington men’s basketball program in the moments that followed the unveiling of the NCAA tournament field 11 days ago. And it spoke volumes about what the Huskies thought about what was left of the 2011-12 season.
And yet UW has gone on to make some noise, which says a lot about this team’s ability to flip the switch and get refocused.
“We got over the hump, and now I feel like we’re on a mission when we get to New York,” UW senior Darnell Gant said after the Huskies won their third consecutive game of the National Invitational Tournament on Tuesday night to advance to next week’s semifinals in New York City.
“So we’re going to be focused, and we’re going to be ready.”
After a brief pep talk from coach Lorenzo Romar, a slow start in the first half of the NIT opener and the eventual return of a front-running fan base, the Huskies are hitting their stride once again in March.
“Once we realized how fun it could be, that we were still playing and around each other, we wanted to try to win the whole thing,” junior point guard Abdul Gaddy said Tuesday night. “We have a chip on our shoulder.”
The initial shock of not being included in the field of 68 NCAA tourney teams was still running through the players’ blood when Romar explained to them the day after Selection Sunday that the NIT had its own merits as a tournament.
“This tournament gets more fun as you go,” he told the players and the small group of reporters who attended his press conference that same day, when the Huskies were preparing for their NIT opener against Texas-Arlington.
“I think we all bought into that,” sophomore Terrence Ross said.
But turning the page was easier said than done.
“It was very hard,” freshman Tony Wroten Jr. said. “Everybody wants to make the NCAA tournament. When we didn’t make it, we were like: ‘Man.’ But you had to be mature about it and move on.”
That first-round game against Texas Arlington drew fewer than 3,000 fans, and for part of the first half it looked like even the UW players were among those missing from the arena. But the competitive juices kicked in midway through the second half, the Huskies survived and advanced, and after that, the only pep talk they needed was a one-word edict made famous by Charlie Sheen.
“After winning the first one (over Texas Arlington), it kind of felt good,” Ross said. “The second one (over Northwestern) felt better, and this one (Tuesday night’s win over Oregon) is unbelievable. It can only get better from here, so we just have to keep going.”
Said sophomore teammate C.J. Wilcox: “Winning changes everything. It changes your mentality. We were like: we might as well try to win this thing.”
The key to turning NCAA heartbreak into NIT excitement was getting through that first game and then finding a common rallying cry. The Huskies adopted a “might as well win it” philosophy to the NIT and are trying to prove to critics that both UW basketball and the entire Pacific-12 Conference is better than advertised.
After beating Oregon on Tuesday night to advance to the semifinals, Gant said: “Now we’ve got to represent the Pac-12 in New York.”
The Huskies (24-10) found out Wednesday night that they’ll face Minnesota at Madison Square Garden next Tuesday. By that time, just four teams will be left in the NCAA tournament; the College Basketball Invitational and College Insiders Tournament will be about to play their championship games; and UW will be one of just 12 teams in the entire country still playing.
“Any championship you can play for is good,” Gaddy said. “Not a lot of teams are playing right now, but we are. We have to embrace that opportunity and take advantage of it.”
From shocked silence to the motivation that comes with making some noise, the 2011-12 Huskies have come a long way since Selection Sunday.
“I think we’re over that,” Ross said. “We’re not really focused on that. We understand that we have a lot more to play for.”