By Scott M. Johnson Herald Writer
SEATTLE — The ESPN Gameday crew will be in town this weekend for Saturday’s contest between the University of Washington and UCLA, and it’s a pretty good bet that Husky fans will begin lining up for the early-morning event sometime today.
On Thursday night, the USC Trojans made certain that the nationally-televised game between the Huskies and Bruins will have absolutely no meaning.
USC manhandled UW for the second time this season, giving the Huskies a rare home defeat at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Thursday night. The 67-64 loss not only snapped a six-game home winning streak for UW, but it also effectively ended the Huskies’ chances of earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament this year.
Unless the Huskies are cutting down the nets after a win in the Pacific-10 Conference tournament championship game, Washington (17-9, 7-7 league) can probably start making plans for the National Invitational Tournament.
“It’s tough,” UW senior Quincy Pondexter said after Thursday’s loss. “We’re coming down to the end of the season, when we really need wins. It hurts right now.”
USC (16-9, 8-5) handed the Huskies an 87-61 humbling in Los Angeles four weeks ago and was just as dominating at times Thursday night. But a late rally put UW in position to come all the way back from a 16-point, second-half deficit. The Huskies pulled to within a point, at 61-60, with 1:25 remaining but couldn’t finish the deal — a rarity at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in recent years.
USC’s Mike Gerrity scored the Trojans’ final six points, including a driving layup with 1:00 to play and a step-back jumper with 15 seconds remaining to help hold off the Huskies. Gerrity finished with 12 points, while teammate Dwight Lewis scored 16 of his game-high 22 points in the first half.
Pondexter led the Huskies’ second-half rally, finishing with 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting after scoring just two points in the January loss at USC. Teammate Matthew Bryan-Amaning also played well in his second consecutive start, scoring 14 points to go with seven rebounds.
But guards Isaiah Thomas, Venoy Overton and Abdul Gaddy combined for just 19 points on 8-for-21 shooting. The Huskies also missed some key free throws, finishing 11-for-18 from the line.
It marked the second home loss of the season for UW, which now holds a 44-3 record at Hec Edmundson Pavilion since the start of the 2008-09 season.
“I’m proud of the guys for fighting back and making it a game, but we weren’t able to get over the hump,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said.
On a day when all three of this state’s top men’s basketball programs got knocked down to size — it’s the first time UW, Washington State and Gonzaga have lost on the same day since Feb. 8, 2003 — the Huskies’ defeat might have been the most devastating. UW was, at best, on the bubble of possible NCAA tournament participants heading into the game. Losing to USC for the second time in as many meetings only made the Huskies’ chances of a second consecutive NCAA appearance look that much more bleak.
Another fast start at home turned sour around the 13-minute mark of the first half when USC started a 19-5 run that eventually gave the Trojans a 26-17 lead. UW had no answer for Lewis, who scored 16 first-half points while leading USC to a 32-24 advantage at the half.
The Huskies trailed 54-38 midway through the second half before a full-court press helped spark an 18-5 run over a five-minute stretch to put them back in the game. But Gerrity finished the Huskies off with a pair of free throws, the driving layup and the step-back jumper with the shot clock running down — the fourth time the Trojans beat the shot clock with a basket during the pivotal second half.
The Huskies came close to having a chance to tie the score in the closing second but couldn’t corral a loose ball near midcourt. After Overton made a 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds remaining to pull UW within three points, he and Pondexter ran into each other trying to steal the inbounds pass at midcourt. The buzzer expired just after the ball bounced off their arms, and the Huskies’ postseason hopes were essentially dashed.
“It’s our ninth loss,” Pondexter said when asked what the defeat meant in the big picture. “We’ve just got to bounce back and play our best basketball.”
What might make the Trojans’ two-game sweep of UW a little easier to take is the fact that the Huskies won’t see USC again this season. A self-imposed violation of NCAA rules means the Trojans won’t be eligible for postseason play, not even the Pac-10 tournament.
But when it comes to postseason play, the Huskies’ best bet might be the NIT. And that’s a prospect UW isn’t ready to entertain right now.
“We’ve got to get ready to play against a much-improved UCLA team (Saturday) — that’s the big picture,” Romar said. “That’s all we can think about right now.”