Chosen ones: Huskies will dance

  • John Sleeper / Herald Writer
  • Sunday, March 14, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – Were there a regulation hoop in the room, Nate Robinson could have hit his head on it.

So jacked was Washington’s 5-foot-9 guard to see his team listed among those receiving NCAA tournament berths Sunday, his leap rivaled that of his highlight-film jam against Arizona this season.

“They gave us the respect we earned,” Robinson said of the NCAA Selection Committee. “We felt we did everything we had to do. They did the right thing.”

The Huskies (19-11), the No. 8 seed in the St. Louis Region, face No. 9 Alabama-Birmingham (20-8) Friday at Columbus, Ohio. The time will be determined by CBS.

The winner likely will play Kentucky, the top seed of the tournament, which will play the winner of the play-in game between Lehigh and Florida A&M.

Discounting the Huskies’ RPI of 67, a questionable strength of schedule and a 5-8 start to the season, the Selection Committee obviously was swayed by Washington’s late-season rush. The Huskies won 14 of their last 17 games, beat then-No. 1 and undefeated Stanford, took three games from Arizona, lost by just five to third-seeded North Carolina State on the road and finished second in the Pacific-10 Conference tournament.

Bottoming out at 0-5 in the conference, the Huskies got on a roll and rode it. Early in its turnaround, the popular opinion was that maybe, just maybe, Washington could pull off enough victories to nail down an NIT bid.

But once the Huskies continued winning in late February, especially after they swept the Arizona schools on the heels of a draining cross-country trip to Raleigh, N.C., talk of a possible NCAA berth came about.

And that was when Washington recognized it had little room for error. In that way, it can be argued that Washington withstood all the pressure that the NCAA tournament could dish out, because the Huskies had little choice but to consistently win for the Selection Committee to notice.

“After every game, you guys asked if that was the most important game of my life,” guard Will Conroy said. “We all said yes, because it was. And they kept getting more important as we went along.”

The berth may have come earlier, in coach Lorenzo Romar’s second season at Washington, than even the Huskies are willing to admit. A 10-17 team last season, the Huskies didn’t even finish in the top eight in the Pac-10 and failed to make the conference tournament.

“It’s just a reward for how hard we worked in the offseason and how we came together as a team,” forward Mike Jensen said.

In UAB, the Huskies will face a mirror-image foe. Co-champion of the C-USA Conference, UAB may be as quick as Washington. Senior guard Mo Finley averages a team-high 13.3 points a game, while 6-9, 240-pound forward Gabe Kennedy averages 11.8.

“They’ll press us for 40 minutes,” Romar said. “They have a lot of quickness. They like to run. They’re a lot like us in that respect. They’re not overly sized.”

Washington is one of three state schools in the tournament. Gonzaga, the third seed in the St. Louis Region, opens play against No. 14 Valparaiso Thursday at KeyArena in Seattle.

Eastern Washington, 15th seed in the East Rutherford Region, opens Friday against second-seed Oklahoma State in Kansas City, Mo.

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