SEATTLE — By thumping Arizona State 79-56 on Saturday night, the University of Washington stayed a game out of first place in the Pacific-10 Conference men’s basketball standings. And after a full slate of Pac-10 games, the Huskies are no longer looking up at four teams knotted at the top.
Now there’s just one. But, golly, do they have company in second place.
By rolling past the Sun Devils with surprising ease, the 6-5 Huskies now share the second spot with four other teams — Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and USC.
And the Huskies have a chance to nab a share of first place on Thursday when they play their most important game of the season to date. In likely a make-or-break game in Washington’s bid to repeat as conference champion, it travels to Berkeley, Calif., to face first-place California on Thursday night.
A win over the Golden Bars would also be Washington’s first road victory of the season — the Huskies are 0-6 away from Bank of America Arena in 2009-10.
But four straight home triumphs, and three of them blowouts, gives Washington a big dose of confidence heading into Thursday’s game.
“We have a lot of momentum,” said UW forward Quincy Pondexter, who had 17 points to share game-high scoring honors with teammate Isaiah Thomas. “We know what’s at stake. We have a chance to be right up there at the top.
“We’re very fortunate,” he said. “Sometimes you lose a couple of games and the season is kind of over. But we still have a good chance of winning the championship and that’s our goal. We’re the defending champions and we have to redeem ourselves.”
If the Huskies play against California with the same ferocity and spirit as they showed Arizona State, they’ll have a good chance at a win. Washington, which improved to 16-7 overall, spotted the Sun Devils the game’s first two points, but then broke out to a lead that quickly reached double digits.
Everything seemed to work for Washington at both ends. The Huskies were scoring from inside and outside, and shredding Arizona State’s vaunted 1-3-1 zone defense. And their defense held the visitors to just two field goals in the first 12 minutes.
By then Washington was up 27-7 and the lead reached a first-half high of 38-14 on a Pondexter layin with 4:18 to play.
Arizona State closed the period with a modest rally, and pulled within 15 points, 42-27, with the first field goal of the second half. But the Huskies never let the lead fall any lower, and in the waning minutes Washington pushed the margin back over 20 points.
“I think Washington really took it to us,” said ASU head coach Herb Sendek. “They were very aggressive and I thought they played outstanding defense. … We had a hard time with their pressure and I thought the Washington guards were very dominant both defensively as well as offensively.
“They just soundly beat us,” he said.
Arizona State got a very quiet game from their starting backcourt of Derek Glasser and Jamelle McMillan. Glasser, an outstanding perimeter shooter, had just one field goal — a late second-half 3-pointer that drew mock cheers from the UW student section, which had taunted Glasser for going scoreless to that moment.
And McMillan, the team’s point guard, did go scoreless, though he had four assists.
In addition to Pondexter and Thomas, the Huskies were led by forward Justin Holliday, who continues to blossom into a terrific all-around player. Holliday was high for Washington with 10 rebounds and added seven points, three assists, two steals and even a blocked shot.
“He was all over the place,” praised UW head coach Lorenzo Romar.
“I thought we moved the ball well and got good looks,” Romar added. “But overall I thought defensively we were really dialed in.”
The Huskies also finished with a commanding 48-29 margin in rebounds, including 19 rebounds at the offensive end. That total, Romar said, “is a pretty good night at the office.”
Washington’s road woes will be a big storyline this week, but Romar has seen enough good play from his team lately to be encouraged heading into an important weekend in the Bay Area.
“Even though we’ve been playing at home, we’re playing our best basketball of the year right now on a consistent basis,” he said. “So we’ll see how good that is and how consistent it is as we go on the road.”