It was the kind of game that makes March Madness worth waiting 11 months for. Two quality teams that rebounded from the loss of marquee players from their previously top-seeded squads. Two conference runners-up with something to prove. A game with wild momentum swings. Foes fighting their way off the ropes just when it appeared that a standing eight-count was imminent. Joy. Despair. And ultimately, more joy.
It was the kind of game that left you delirious and drained, simultaneously. It was a good thing I didn't have to do anything more strenuous than typing.
From the perspective of program history, it was a colossal mismatch. Illinois, the most victorious school this side of Duke over the last six years, versus Washington, which had just recorded its first consecutive seasons with an NCAA Tournament win. The defending national finalists versus a school that hadn't advanced past the round of 16 since the Eisenhower Administration. While the undersized Huskies don't have a David on their roster, it was obvious who was filling the role of Goliath.
So it was mildly surprising when the maligned fifth-seed, Washington, took an early 28-14 lead. Following a frenetic opening that saw the Illini (truly) big men whistled for trying to create even more space, the Dawgs jumped ahead with a 19-3 run. After shooting 58 percent in its ninth consecutive first-round victory Thursday, Illinois seemed to be wearing oven mitts as they hit just five of their first 26 shots. But the underlying culprit was the Dawgs' disruptive defense, which continues to catch teams off guard, even those with an All-American guard.
With Bobby Jones harassing the Illini point guard, Dee Brown was rendered mute-without a score, assist, or rebound-for the first 14 minutes of the game. It wasn't just "the one-man fast break" who was struggling as the boys from the Big Ten went five minutes without a score. No Illini had tallied more than five points and senior James Augustine, their 6-foot-10 premier post, had a grand total of three free throws to his credit.
"What I thrive on is playing defense and sticking the best players and just bugging them and annoying them," said Jones, who played a major part in holding Brown to a sub-par 5-for-18 outing. "I feel like that's what I did today-contest every shot, get in on him and don't let anything seem easy for 40 minutes."
But teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 four of the previous five years don't blow away with the first gust of adversity. With Brown finally on the board, the Fighting Illini came roaring back with 19 points in the final five minutes of the half. Finding a weakness in the UW alignment, Illinois used a series of entry passes from the wing to feed Augustine, who was repeatedly freed by a screen at the elbow. The deceptively agile forward blew down the lane for 10 points in 3½ minutes. When Brown delivered a trey at the buzzer, the lead was down to two quicker than you can say "Land of Lincoln."
It had taken a while, but the Illinois size and frontline depth finally paid dividends as the team hit eight of its last nine shots from point-blank range. The orange and blue trotted into the locker room with a 20-10 advantage in points in the paint and the role of the frustrated had been passed onto the Dawgs. Brandon Roy had been nailed with two questionable blocking fouls in the waning minutes and Washington was suddenly vulnerable again after giving up a 19-7 run.
Doubts were creeping in like coastal fog on the unseasonably cold San Diego State campus. As the No. 5 seed-Washington's second-highest since seeding was introduced in 1979-the Huskies were slated as the second-round underdogs. And they started the second half like they believed it.
The Dawgs' lead was erased on the opening possession as two effortless layups by Augustine and a dunk by Brian Randle had the Illini rolling again. When guard Rich McBride hit back-to-back treys, the blood pressure of the Husky Nation took a tangible turn for the worst. Even a Washington timeout, in the wake of 2-for-10 shooting to start to the second half, did little to stop the bleeding as UI scored immediately in transition. With Illinois running pick plays to perfection, Brown connected with Augustine for a 30-foot backdoor alley-oop. Sixteen of Augustine's 19 points had come in the previous 8½ minutes of action and the Huskies' Sweet 16 dreams seemed lost. A 33-9 riptide will suck the life out of anyone.
"Even I was concerned," said Roy. "I was like, 'Man, I'm tired. These guys are not giving me anything easy.' They were just slowly killing us."
But shortly after falling behind by 11, the tide began to turn. The UW's quickness advantage began to show as the Big Ten bruisers fell into foul trouble. Within a minute of 6-10 center Shaun Pruitt picking up his fourth personal with 9:31 remaining, the Huskies went into the double bonus. Drives by Roy saddled Randle with enough fouls to limit the stopper to 24 minutes. With Roy and Justin Dentmon going to the line repeatedly, the Dawgs slowly clawed their way back into it. The freshman shook off the nerves of an 0-3 start from the line to hit 8 of 12 for the game. Roy scored 11 of his 21 points from the stripe as the Huskies made 16 of 21 freebies in the second half.
When Mike Jensen answered a Brown trey with his second triple of the game, the comeback picked up momentum. Jones, the rarest of players who can hector both a point guard and a post player, briefly battled with Augustine for a critical stretch. As the interior defense began to better recognize the screens, Jensen stepped up to hold Augustine scoreless for the final 15 minutes of the game. The Huskies may not be the longest team in the tourney but they showed their mettle by handcuffing the Illini to six points in the final 6½ minutes. The athletic effort was underscored as Illinois went to the line just 11 times (to the Huskies' 39 trips) and Roy, Jones and Jamaal Williams (3) combined for five blocked shots.
Dentmon, the Husky mascot for redemption, had a game that won't soon be forgotten in his native Illinois. The highlight of his 13-point, six-rebound, four-assist contribution came with 4:12 remaining. The littlest Husky drained a leaning trey from the top of the arc and, after getting leveled by his former AAU teammate Jamar Smith, hit a free throw for a four-point play that cut the lead to 60-58. Roy took over on the next possession, with a cross-lane drive that concluded with a left-handed scoop shot that few lefties could have hit. The contortionist act capped an 18-7 rally for the first tie since the opening seconds of the half.
After Jones was fouled following an offensive rebound and hit two free throws for a 64-62 lead, Roy came up with the stop of the game. Smith, who had exploded for 20 points Thursday night, tried to drive with less than 30 seconds left, but BRoy rose perfectly to deny the shot and force a turnover.
With the Huskies clinging to a 67-64 lead, Brown's tying attempt bounced off harmlessly and landed, appropriately, in Roy's hands at the buzzer. The All-American, who was born in San Diego while his father was stationed at nearby Camp Pendleton, clinched the return to the Sweet 16 with a 49-point weekend that served as his national coming-out party. In the spotlight of the Big Dance, the country got a chance to see what makes him so special. The guard led the team not only in scoring, but shared the team-high in rebounding with Williams (seven). And he hit the crucial shots down the stretch as the Huskies survived to dance another day.
"I just love every moment that I'm out there playing with those guys," said Roy, the unassuming team member whose superhero's cape usually hangs out of his jersey by the second half. "It was a total team effort. Everybody made a play down the stretch and that's what you need to do at this stage of the tournament."
Lorenzo Romar's post-game compliments included one for Jones, his first recruit. "Mr. Intangible, Bobby Jones, he did a lot of things that won't show up in the box score," said Romar, who became the first Husky coach to lead teams to consecutive Sweet Sixteens.
"The leadership by our seniors," Romar continued. "When you look at them, Jamaal stepped up and is beginning to play terrific defense. Mike Jensen stepped up defensively. And Brandon was his usual self."
The win, which was significantly more challenging than last year's second-half blowout of Pacific in the second round, is amongst the sweetest in recent memory. Roy, who is finally getting full credit for his role in Washington's four-year ascendance, was asked where this victory ranked in his college career.
"This has to got to be top three. We beat a great team," said Roy, who has followed Illinois since crossing paths with Brown at a high school camp four years ago. "We beat a team that finished second in the Big Ten, a conference that they say is a lot better than ours. And I think we did a great job of going out there and representing tonight."
On a day when the state's other tourney team, the more-heralded Gonzaga Bulldogs, knocked off another storied Big Ten program, Indiana, Roy talked about staying hungry. The Dawgs have thrived recently with little fanfare and a minimal amount of respect.
"We continue to have the mentality that nobody likes us, nobody's picking us, so let's go out and shock the world," said the captain as Washington (26-6) will head to Washington, D.C., for the regional semifinals. "It's a pretty special feeling. A lot of people wouldn't have guessed that we would make it this far."