Do you remember the shot? It’s hard to find on YouTube, even though it might have been the most important bucket in program history.
Do you remember the star? It wasn’t Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy or any of the myriad lottery picks that have come through Washington.
No, the face of the 2009-10 University of Washington men’s basketball season was Quincy Pondexter, a senior whose ability finally caught up to his potential. And 10 years ago, Pondexter’s 11th-seeded Huskies played in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16, a stage they have not returned to since.
Pondexter looks back on the season as the greatest year of his life. It set up the 6-foot-7 forward for a seven-year NBA career and gave him a gigabyte’s worth of fond memories.
But it almost never happened. And while it’s not right to call it a forgotten season …
“It kind of is,” Pondexter said. “I think it definitely is. Times are different. You didn’t have social media or things like that, where that year could be a staple.”
OK, then. For those whose memories might be a little fuzzy, here’s the story:
Pondexter was a whale of a recruit who scored 10.7 points per game his freshman season but lacked consistency. He regressed during his sophomore year and improved only slightly as a junior.
Pondexter said he was on the brink of transferring several times. He would get sucked into online message boards blasting him, and felt he was falling short of fans’ expectations.
But in the end he didn’t make excuses, just a commitment.
“There was no one to put the blame on except myself,” Pondexter said. “I had already locked myself in the gym most of those years, but I really locked myself in the gym that last year, to the point that it was do or die.”
The result was do.
Pondexter averaged 19.3 points and 7.4 rebounds his senior season and set a Pac-10 record with five conference player of the week awards. He said Lorenzo Romar, the Huskies’ coach at the time, told him he was going to win Pac-10 Player of the Year.
It seemed like an easy choice when you compared Pondexter’s numbers to the rest of the league’s. But the honor ended up going to Cal guard Jerome Randle, who had only one player of the week award that season, but whose Bears won the conference title.
Romar couldn’t believe it. Did the coaches voting not remember how Pondexter dominated in every aspect of the game?
“He would just punk you in the post. He would go up and get tip dunks — you couldn’t box him out. He was hitting threes, he had a mid-range game. His senior year he was just a grown man,” Romar said. “We would put him in position where he would catch it on the elbow. And when he would catch it there, there just wasn’t a whole lot you could do.”
There was one game in March against Oregon in which Pondexter tallied 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists on 14-of-18 shooting. Problem was, nobody outside the arena saw it because the game wasn’t televised. But Pondexter said the POY snub was a rallying point for his teammates, who took their aggression out on the Huskies’ Pac-10 tournament foes.
Wins over Oregon State, Stanford and Cal gave the Huskies the conference tournament championship and put them in the Big Dance as an 11 seed. They drew Marquette in the first round and trailed by as many as 13 in the second half.
Two things happened: 1. Thomas kept the Golden Eagles’ Darius Johnson-Odom in check after asking to guard him in the second half; and 2. Pondexter took over.
Already having scored 10 second-half points, Pondexter got the ball in the post with the score tied and 37 seconds remaining on the clock. He kicked the ball out to Thomas, who missed a 3-pointer that Pondexter rebounded.
The Huskies then isolated Pondexter, who beat Jimmy Butler off the dribble and nailed the game-winning leaner with 1.7 seconds to go.
“I was tired, but I was like, ‘I need to get the ball.’ Open gym clicked in right away. I was like I’m not going to let Isaiah or anybody else take the shot. I was like, ‘Isaiah, I basically just gave you your shot, now it’s my turn,’” Pondexter said. “I basically told everyone to get the hell out of my way.”
Do you remember what you were feeling after it went in?
“I was like, ‘Please don’t let it be my fault if they hit a shot after this.’”
And when Marquette missed and you won?
“I broke down and thought, ‘I can’t believe what God is doing for me right now,’” Pondexter said. “All that pain and hard work and everything, and all that disappointment, it all came to a head at that moment, and I’m like, ‘I’m lucky as hell right now.’”
The Huskies went on to crush third-seeded New Mexico in the second round. Pondexter said he and his teammates knew it would be a rout before the game started. They saw the Lobos as a small-conference team that couldn’t match up with them physically, and they were right.
A few days later, however, West Virginia dashed the Huskies’ Final Four hopes in the Sweet 16. Pondexter got in foul trouble early, the Mountaineers overwhelmed Washington with their size, and that was that.
Still, it was a heck of a run. But is it a celebrated run?
One year later, remember, Thomas hit a buzzer-beater against Arizona in the Pac-12 tournament. With Gus Johnson on the call, that game-winner has cemented itself as the most iconic shot in Huskies history, and it might not see much competition for a while.
But was it any more significant than what Pondexter did? You can find multiple clips of Thomas beating the Wildcats, but with so many other tight games going on in the NCAA tournament that day, the only footage easily found of Pondexter’s moment is from a fan in the stands.
Oh, well. Pondexter might wish what he and his teammates accomplished that season had a more visible legacy, but he’s grateful for every moment. He went from a near-transfer to an NCAA-tournament hero to the 26th overall pick in the NBA draft.
Was there a postseason award snub? Probably. Was that herculean game against Oregon televised? No. Does posterity view his shot against Marquette with the same reverence as other NCAA game-winners?
But does Pondexter have a single regret? No, sir.
“That year changed my entire life for me and my family and everything,” he said. “I’ll always love Washington. I’ll always love that year, because that year really was the best year of my life, and I’ll cherish it forever.”