Mike Jensen's senior season has not been the pinnacle he might have imagined coming out of Kentwood High School. His fifth year as a Husky began as poorly as his first, with a dislocated shoulder and a lot of time on the pine. The last holdover from the Bob Bender era, who suffered through 18- and 17-loss seasons, had to watch as this year's team became all he had dreamed of-undefeated, top 10-without him. Shortly after returning to the rotation in late December, the Huskies lost five of the next 10 games. But in his penultimate home game, Jensen packed a season's worth of satisfaction into a single half of basketball.
A minute into the clash with Stanford Jensen drilled a 3-pointer for the opening score. Two minutes later he drained another trey from the left corner with textbook backspin. After the Cardinal went to a zone, the forward's third triple looked as easy as tossing a toy ball through a hula hoop. Just over six minutes into the game Jensen had matched his season-high with nine points and had accounted for the only other UW score with an assist to Brandon Roy.
"Mike's the kind of guy that if he makes his first couple, he doesn't think he's going to miss-ever-for the rest of his life," said a light-hearted Lorenzo Romar.
Jensen's fifth 3-ball of the half gave the Huskies a double-digit lead that they held until the intermission. When Tim Morris momentarily cut the lead to nine points in the opening stretch of the second half, the blonde bomber answered with a deep-ball and the Huskies never looked back, cruising to a 75-57 victory.
The 6-foot-8 senior finished with a career-high 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting from behind the arc. Having hinted that he'd consider playing overseas next season, the oldest Husky did a fair impression of a European big man, looking like a short-haired Dirk Novitsky in gold-and-purple.
"I think confidence is huge in basketball," said Jensen, who hit 3-of-5 treys last Saturday. "Anytime you have a serious injury and surgery like I had, it takes a while to get your confidence back and sometimes to get back in the swing of playing intense Pac-10 basketball."
The game before Senior Day saw the elder statesmen in fine form. Roy turned in another routinely excellent game with 23 points, six rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Bobby Jones supplied eight points, including a highlight drive that began with a 3-ball fake and ended with a dunk plus one. Jamaal Williams had 10 points and eight rebounds. Despite the lopsided score, which ballooned to 20 points in the final minute, fan favorite Zane Potter didn't see any game action. Some things will have to wait for Sunday's showdown with the league-leading Cal Bears.
"You could see when we went straight man (defense) that we had a hard time guarding Brandon," said Stanford coach Trent Johnson, an alumnus of Seattle's Franklin High School. "He is special. If you run a guy at him, he makes the nice pass to get his teammate the basket. If you try to guard him by yourself, well, you can't guard him with one guy."
The Huskies (21-5, 10-5) had much more success stopping Stanford's main weapon, center Matt Haryasz. The combination of Jensen, Jon Brockman, and Williams did a nice job of fronting, sandwiching, and generally harassing Haryasz into a 3-of-7 night that resulted in a quiet 10 points. Washington had three scorers in double-digits before Stanford had its first. Backup big man Peter Prowitt scored his 10th point with 12:05 remaining.
"That was probably (Jensen's) best game here, because he did it on both ends of the floor," Romar said. "He shot the ball extremely well, obviously, but defensively he really worked hard to limit Matt Haryasz with his touches. The rest of the group also did a very good job of having a presence so that Matt couldn't just go off on us like he has in the past against so many teams."
When Stanford adjusted to Jensen's hot hand by tracking him closely on the perimeter, Roy took advantage of the openings with 16 points in the second half and an 8-for-8 night from the foul line. The Huskies tallied 10 treys, including two by Joel Smith in another promising effort. Jensen's six deep-balls fell one shy of the school record, yet were twice the total of the Cardinal, who didn't hit their first 3-pointer until the final 10 minutes.
Stanford was able to keep it respectable in the first half with 10 fastbreak points. But the Dawgs got back in transition in the second half and limited the opportunities with only 10 turnovers for the game. The Huskies will have to do a better job of keeping Cal's big men off the boards, especially Leon Powe. The Tree had a slight rebounding advantage Thursday, 31-30, but Haryasz collected nine caroms.
Stanford's 37-percent shooting helped doom them to their eleventh loss of the season, eliminating them from NCAA Tournament consideration barring a sweep in the Pac-10 Tourney. Guard Chris Hernandez, the object of the Dawg Pack's hazing after hitting the game-stealing free throws at Stanford, was pressured into a 2-of-13 shooting performance and five turnovers.
The winning margin was satisfying not only because it avenged the bitter loss at Palo Alto, but also for its timing. The once 5-5 Huskies seem to be reaching their stride just in time for the win-or-go-home time of the season. A defeat of California Sunday would move the Dawgs into a tie for second place, with only a trip to the Arizona desert remaining on the regular-season slate. Another victory would give Washington just its second 22-win season since 1985, the middle year of three consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies are now all but assured of their third straight invitation to the Big Dance.
"We just know that this it-it's the end of the season, especially for us seniors," said Jones. "That's what motivates us to play hard and finish strong in conference and make a statement to the (NCAA selection) committee that we're getting better at the end. We're trying to get as high a seed as we possible can."
Maybe even as high as Jensen was after the game. A five-game winning streak, which coincides with his return to the starting lineup, will make you optimistic.
"I wasn't worried about my season," Jensen said. "As long as we're winning, that's my main focus. It's great to have a good game, especially in front of your family and in front of your home crowd. I was really happy that I was able to have another good game before I get out of here. We've got another big one coming up, hopefully I can do better."