LOS ANGELES — Only a few hundred Washington fans were left in Staples Center when the celebrating Huskies started an impromptu dunk contest. They tried one elaborate slam after another on the net-less hoop, their purple Pac-10 tournament title hats flying off their heads to the barking crowd’s delight.
Now that these Huskies are rolling after an inconsistent season, they just don’t want to put down the basketball.
With a thrilling 79-75 victory over California to win the conference tournament Saturday, they assured themselves of at least one more big-time game together.
Quincy Pondexter scored 18 points, Isaiah Thomas added 16 and Washington furiously rallied from a late deficit before barely protecting its own lead. Venoy Overton hit two free throws with 2.1 seconds left for the third-seeded Huskies (24-9), who emphatically salvaged their up-and-down season with seven straight wins — none more entertaining than this back-and-forth finale.
“What a college basketball game,” said coach Lorenzo Romar, who triumphantly cut the last strand on the net before holding it aloft to Washington’s fans. “It was obvious something was on the line for both teams. I couldn’t be happier to see these guys experience a championship-type situation.”
The Huskies brought the net and the Pac-10’s automatic NCAA tournament bid home to Seattle with a come-from-behind win over the top-seeded Golden Bears (23-10), who also are almost certainly headed to the NCAAs with their first regular-season league title in a half-century.
“We’re going to be able to sleep tonight — finally, man,” said Pondexter, the Huskies’ only senior. “There’s so many questions that come about, but we told each other that if we take care of business, we don’t need a committee to tell us if we’re good enough.”
After a four-day tournament filled with blowouts and poorly played games, Cal and Washington finally put on a show worthy of the Staples Center stage — albeit in front of thousands of empty seats. Both teams made impressive rallies while the lead swung wildly in the final minutes.
Cal trailed 61-52 with 11 minutes to go before scoring 14 consecutive points and holding Washington scoreless for more than 5½ minutes. The Bears led 66-61, but the Huskies made their own 12-2 rally, reclaiming the lead with 3:22 left on a 3-pointer by Elston Turner, who didn’t score until the game’s final minutes.
Jerome Randle halved the Huskies’ lead on a 3-pointer with 1:02 left, and Pondexter committed a turnover — but Randle was fouled on a loose ball with 4.4 seconds left, preventing him from trying a tying 3.
The Pac-10 player of the year made the first shot and missed the second intentionally, but Randle was called for stepping over the line too quickly before Jamal Boykin could grab the rebound, and Overton’s free throws sealed it for Washington.
“I thought we were in position,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “I thought Jamal had it. It’s rare that an official would call a violation, so you just have to beat them to the middle.”
Theo Robertson scored 25 points and Boykin added 20 points and 14 rebounds for the Bears, whose six-game winning streak ended in a fitting final between the Pac-10’s last two regular-season champions. Randle managed just 12 points while battling foul trouble.
“We only have one way to react, and that’s to get back to work,” Robertson said. “We can’t dwell on this loss. As much as we wanted to come out here and have a better performance and win the championship, there’s a new season that’s going to take place.”
The Bears have never won the conference tournament, but were the top seed for the first time. They reached the final with comfortable wins over Oregon and UCLA, removing almost all doubt about their NCAA fitness.
“I think we’re a good team, and we’ll take what we’re given,” Montgomery said. “Hopefully it’s a matchup that’s favorable to us.”
The Huskies, who won the 2005 tournament title, entered this tourney with nine wins in their final 11 games, finally gathering some momentum after a choppy regular season. Washington had a top-25 ranking late last year before slipping to a 1-3 start to its Pac-10 schedule.
The third-seeded Huskies advanced by beating Oregon State and Stanford in the past two days. Those victories meant Washington seemed likely to make the NCAAs even without a tournament title, but the Huskies removed any doubt.
“The anxiety that you may have as a team knowing you’re one-and-done is something that’s been going on with our team for a while,” Romar said. “We did get a lot of experience, a lot of practice in playing one-and-done games.”
The teams traded the lead 16 times in the first half. Pondexter had 12 points in the final 12 minutes before halftime, pushing Washington to a 41-37 lead.
The Bears’ main problem was foul trouble for Randle, who scored 33 points against Washington last month in Berkeley. He picked up two fouls in the first half and a third early in the second, and the Huskies surged whenever Randle was on the bench.
Washington scored seven straight points while Randle briefly left midway through the second half, jumping to a 59-51 lead with 12 minutes to play.
Yet just when the Huskies appeared poised to put it away with a nine-point lead, Cal made its 15-0 run, starting with five points from Boykin. The Bears made a similar run in their semifinal victory over UCLA, holding the Bruins scoreless for nearly six minutes in the second half.
Randle’s free throws with 9:29 to play — his first points in more than 20 minutes — put the Bears back ahead. Cal led 66-61 before Washington finally scored again, but the Huskies quickly tied it on Overton’s 3-pointer with 4:54 to play.