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Spoilsports

Washington seems poised to knock off stronger teams in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament

March 07, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

If there is a spoiler in every tournament crowd, the prime suspect in the Pacific 10 Conference's basketball tournament comes from the University of Washington.

"It hasn't looked like it all the time this year," said Huskies forward Jon Brockman after Washington upset then second-ranked UCLA, 61-51, last week, "but this is a good team capable of anything."

The Huskies, 18-12 overall but 8-10 in conference play, were once ranked as high as No. 8 but a team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior has flopped away from its home court, where it was 17-2 this season.

Washington was 1-10 in road games and will be playing on a neutral court for the first time at 8:30 tonight when it meets Arizona State at Staples Center.

Even so, Coach Lorenzo Romar said he was packing four suits and told the story of how, when he was the coach at St. Louis University, his team began the Conference USA tournament seeded seventh and went on a four-game winning streak to take the title and earn an improbable NCAA berth.

"The thing about our team," Romar said, "is that we're beginning to get it defensively."

That defense held UCLA to a season-low 20 first-half points and in the matter of three days the Huskies beat both nationally ranked Southern California teams by a combined 25 points. After starting 1-6 in the Pac-10, Washington won seven of its last 11 conference games.

"It's a matter of confidence. A lot of things have started coming together," said Brockman, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound sophomore who averages 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds. Spencer Hawes, a 7-foot freshman center, contributes 15.2 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.

Both were recruited by UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who admires their inside power and natural basketball skills. The Huskies also have a capable long-range shooter in junior guard Ryan Appleby, a sometimes explosive scorer in freshman forward Quincy Pondexter, and five starters who average double figures in scoring.

Still, the Huskies lost by 20 points at Gonzaga and were beaten twice by Pac-10 runner-up Washington State -- which would be Washington's quarterfinal opponent should it beat Arizona State.

Since no Pac-10 team with either a losing conference record or a seventh-place finish has earned an NCAA tournament at-large bid, one thing seems clear: "We need to win four games in a row," Brockman said.

Hawes pointed to the way the Huskies withstood UCLA's second-half comeback Saturday -- a 16-point lead shrunk to a point -- without giving up the lead or losing their composure.

"To me, that's a sign we've grown up," Hawes said. "At other points this season, I think we would have let that kind of rush bother us. The way we beat USC and UCLA, I think those games could be a turning point."

What the Huskies are aiming for is a school-record fourth consecutive NCAA appearance. "I hope we haven't waited too long," Appleby said.

After Saturday's game, UCLA's Howland said, "If Washington plays like it played today, they have a shot. The tough part is, they still have to win four games in four days and that's hard to do. But if anybody can do it maybe they can."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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