The arena was packed, the pep band blaring, the fans screaming, and the players competing like a trip to the Final Four was on the line. In reality, the only thing riding on the outcome of the game was Pacific Northwest basketball bragging rights, and a trip to New York to play in the semifinals of the lowly NIT. But it matters not -- Washington's victory over Oregon last night in Seattle was one hell of a college hoops spectacle.
The basketball itself was exciting too, though little defense was played by either squad during the first half. (Oregon was shooting as high as 60 percent from the field late in the half, further evidence that the Dawgs would have been assured an early exit had they snuck into the Big Dance. But when they battened down for the second period, the offenses truly put on a display.)
Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten proved why they will likely both be millionaires soon, with Ross especially impressing by draining an array of deft mid-range jump shots and three-point daggers. Any NBA scouts in the house probably needed help from a janitor to clean up the puddles drool that formed at their feet. Wroten was his usual trick-or-treat self, mixing tenacious drives to the basket with ill-timed attempts at highlight plays, but he also eclipsed the great Isaiah Thomas and set UW's freshman scoring record.
Unlike the early NIT games, when some of the players appeared as though they'd rather be sitting through a root canal than on the court, both sides badly wanted to win. Oregon's coach Dana Altman nearly blew a gasket arguing with the officials over a key charging call that went against his team in the final minutes, while Lorenzo Romar punched a clipboard in frustration at one point. Oregon senior forward Olu Ashaolu was in tears after the game.
After CJ Wilcox sank his sixth consecutive free throw to put the Ducks away for good, and the final buzzer sounded, Romar addressed the arena over the PA system. He thanked the fans for their support and crooned the opening line to Sinatra's "New York, New York." The Huskies are headed back to Madison Square Garden, where they suffered two key losses early in the season, and it clearly means something to the team. Outside the locker room after the game, Wroten could be heard woofing "We're goin' back to the Garden!"
There was some hollow talk from Ross in the post-game press conference about "this new championship that we're after," and some posturing from Romar about the meaning of an NIT trophy. Surely they want to win the whole thing. But the real championship game was played last night. And it was a whole lot of fun.